Tuesday, February 10, 2009

When Our Heroes Fail Us

I have been thinking about the recent developments with the news regarding both Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez. I came across this article by ESPN.com's Jeff MacGregor and thought to myself, "Yep, that pretty much sums it up!"

Let me go on record as saying that I think both Phelps and A-Rod were in the wrong. Phelps should not be taking illegal drugs and Rodriguez should not have taken steroids. But let's be honest here. Phelps is not the first college-age dude to smoke some weed at a frat party and A-Rod is not the first professional athlete to try to gain an advantage in order to succeed in his field.

What they did was wrong, but the public response has probably been so strong because we expect so much more of our athletic heroes. We don't really care about some utility infielder that juices up and most of us certainly don't care about swimmers that don't win gold medals. It is because we have elevated these guys as icons and expect them to be something they are not -- superhuman.

As MacGregor writes:
"And this has been our recent trouble with American "heroes," at least the ones arriving still warm off the humming assembly lines of popular culture. The problem lies not in their manufacture, but in our perception of the final product. Once we've been sold their heroic stories by the media and the for-profit institutions in charge of such things, we refuse to see our heroes for what they really are: complex, fallible human beings just like us who rise briefly out of the mire to do something extraordinary, then return to join us in the hog wallow of moral confusion and squalid appetite that is everyday life.
Heroes never were meant to be an accurate reflection of daily human enterprise. They were meant to be examples of the rare capacity to exceed ourselves. Go back to ancient mythology, and you'll see what I mean. The Greeks understood that becoming a hero didn't absolve anyone of being human. In fact, that was usually the point of the story. Cautionary. Many of those "heroes" were lucky to get out of those stories alive. Most traded a single act of glory for a lifetime of punishing regret or a grisly death.
Here in 21st century America, however, we prefer the Candyland version of heroic myth, in which no one is doomed to die or drown or wander forever in a wasteland of pain, but instead sets a record, scores a contract with William Morris, makes a million and marries a swimsuit model, and everything winds up hunky-dory at the end. Nobody has to sleep with his own mother and then claw his eyes out with a brooch."
I don't think it's unreasonable to ask those that make millions of dollars playing a game to attempt to be good role models. But they are not perfect and they will fail. So even though Phelps and Rodriguez's confessions smacked of public relations scripting, they did admit to what they had done and asked for forgiveness. At least they've acknowledged it and sought to make things right. I think that says something about them. If we can't forgive them then maybe that says something about us as well.

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