Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fallen Idols and Mortal Athletes

Tiger Woods welcome to the world of mortals. Welcome to the world of Alex Rodriquez and Rodger Clemens and Rick Pitino and, yeah, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King. Men who squandered professional accomplishment and reputation for sexual peccadillos.

Americans create heroes of their athletes for well over a century. We see the teams as aspects of identity and memory but also as ways to identify with excellence and achievement. We point our children towards athletes as models of character and achievement. More cynical minded critics of sports would argue that we only do this to augment our egos and only identity with winners to augment our own lives of quiet meaninglessness. We make them heroes, we make them idols.

The problem with hero worship and idolatry is that no human is perfect. Excellence in one area of life does not translate into probity or in personal life. Artists, politicians, doctors, lawyers, business people all can leave wreckage in their personal lives for success in professional life.  The relentless demands of professional excellence erode the time and focus upon domestic life. Constant travel, constant time away, constant exposure to fawning fans and hero worshippers throw temptation for sexual escapades in the way. The time and focus devoted to work hollow out time for family or the energy needed to maintain intimacy. No one has quite figured out why men, and it is largely men at this stage, seem to believe that as public figures under intense scrutiny that their sexual liasons will somehow escape notice, but they do. And the trangressions come to light exposing the all too human mortality, weakness and sheer gall or stupidity of the powerful people, in this case athletes.

Thoughtful or angry athletes always insist they are not role models. Alan Iverson and Charles Barkley have been defiant if inarticulate defenders of this position. "We're basketball players, not role models." They are correct and no sane person would expect that NBA players serve as role models, but some do. But the situation is more complicated.

Athletes inherit obligations whether they want them or not. First, children and especially adolescents, inspired by media exposure and fathers identify with athletes and see them as possibilities and people to emulate. Kids walk, talk, dress, swing, shoot and use the same steroids the athletes use. Second, the athletes sign contracts and become celebrities supported by media companies to sell products. They even create their own lines of clothes, like Tiger,  or accessories so that hero worshipping fans can not only buy their numbered jerseys but their shirts, shoes or colognes. Children, corporations, merchandising promote athletes to cultural icons and avatars of consumption.

This exposure drives narratives. Sometimes being a bad boy heightens the marketability so being a negative role model sells hoodies and shoes to rebels or wannabe "homies." Tiger took a different rode. He spoke at Obama's innaugration; he embraced a role as a bridge across races; he embodied a fierce work ethic and excellence; he overcame physical adversity; he had a story book marriage; he served as the face of everything from his clothes to international consultancies like Accenture. This narrative paints a seamless and heroic picture of Tiger as a paragon. He shouldered it well if uncomfortably.

I believe private lives should remain private and that we are not responsible to the public  for them, unless we make our private life an aspect of our public celebrity or persona. Or unless we use private world to shield illegal or abuse behavior. Politicians who run on their family probity or business leaders who demand domesticity from their employees make their private lives legitimate points of inquiry.

Tiger never sold or lead with his private life. He always lead with his professional athletic excellence. The media narratives were fascinated by his life and celebrated it, but he sought to shield his life as much as he could. Still he can't escape the question of whether you want to wear the cool clothes of the best golf player of all time or an accused compulsive philanderer?

The media will hound and berate and exploit this for weeks. A media frenzy bringing down a hero is ugly to behold. It will waste hundreds of precious hours of TV coverage while the battles over Afghanistan and Health Care languish on page 2. We as viewers and makers of heroes collaborate in this distortion. The scandal sells, always has and will. Tiger Wood's own anguished but deliberate comment
"Personal sins should no require press releases and problems with a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions," is correct but won't stop the media ghouls or the voyeurs from exploiting his pain and humiliation.
This is a lesson we never seem to learn. The Greeks knew better. All their heroes had tragic flaws. The ability to overcome the flaws and still excel was an essential aspect of their heroism. We expect too much of heroes. All I ask is that they be human and we enjoy the gift of excellence they bequeath us.

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