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Often times we look at our athletes as being something more than just athletes. It is during those times that we find great joy, but often times we find unseeming and utter disappointment. Once we hold them up as role models, they become bigger than their sport, bigger than God Himself. We start to pray at night: "Dear God, please allow Manny to go 4-4" or "Dear God, please let the Celtics make it pass the Orlando Magic." Our athletes become gods.
And, once they become gods, we forget to see them as who they are: regular people who happen to make a lot of money for playing a GAME. We are willing puppets in their show. We go through all sorts of links to ignore the person and just focus on the athlete. It isn't until they commit the ultimate character flaw that we start to realize the individuals. Sadly, to say, the person rarely comes as close to the awe of the athlete.
In every league, from the NBA to the PGA, we watch our heroes falter as gods to be demoted to regular human beings that falter and stumble as they face everyday vices.
We've seen Michael Jordan admit to a gambling problem. We've seen Michael Vick get sentenced to almost 2 years of hard time for dog fighting. We've seen Tonya Harding bring new definition to the term "slicing the competition." We've seen Roger Clemens get thrown into the steroids era. We've seen Sean Avery become the new bad boy of the NHL. We've seen John Daly pass out drunk in a Hooters.
These athletes were great competitors; I will not deny them that title. What they did on a basketball court, on a football field, on an ice rink, on a golf course or on a pitching mound were indeed magnificent. However, what they did on those playing grounds does not define them. Every action that they make defines them.
J.C. Watts once said, "Character is doing what is right when no one is looking." I've come to learn that this doesn't apply to athletes. In professional sports, character becomes something you pay attention to if the person isn't likeable enough.
Michael Jordan becomes a gambler, and we laud him for it because it makes him more relatable to the everyday person. Alex Rodriguez is using some type of performance enhancing drug and we only worry about whether or not he caused Madonna and Guy Ritchie's marriage to end and him hitting a homer during his first game in forever. These guys are likable enough so what they do doesn't necessarily define who they are. They are seen beyond the scope of their wrongdoings, but not every star athlete gets away with it.
Kobe Bryant goes down for an alleged rape. His alleged victim's story is like a sponge, soaking up everything but never discounting the amount of holes it has. His image is ruined and he loses tons of sponsors.
Barry Bonds becomes the sole face of the steroids era in baseball. He didn't start this horrible era in baseball, but his face outlines everything that is currently bad in baseball. We forget the Mark McGwires and the Sammy Sosas because they are highly likable; they are people that you would still invite over for dinner.
For the guys like Bryant and Bonds, everything isn't always so peachy. They are superstars in a league who are despised. Bryant is imitating Jordan. Therefore, he always has a chip on his shoulder. Bonds is rude to his teammates, specifically Jeff Kent and to reporters. This automatically places him as a bad guy since the media controls who's who in the comic strip of athletes.
All of this brings up two points in professional sports about character:
1) Character isn't defined by what you do in life but by what you do on the playing fields
2) If you're likable enough your flaws are forever ignored.
Our athletes live in a world far beyond the world that we live in. Their wrongdoings can bring them down if they aren't likable enough, but if they have the right smile, we can lift them up to hang out with King Midas. We need to learn to look at an athlete as nothing but an athlete (meaning separate the athlete from the person), because once we make them bigger than any one person they begin to live above the law. Their character no longer is determined by who they are but by what they can do, athletically.
Manny is just Manny, a great baseball player. Nothing more, nothing less.