No Heroes of Mine

We go through it routinely, this cycle. Whether through typically purposeful media hype or other more organic mechanisms, we inflate celebrities to the status of heroes. Then comes the inevitable, but somehow surprising fall of these faux heroes due to their completely predictable human failings.

Maybe the problem lies, not with those we’ve chosen to elevate, but with ourselves and our choices of heroes.

After all, what is it we think a hero is?

A hero is not someone who just does extraordinary feats. If that were true, every circus freak would be a hero. No, a hero is someone who does extraordinary feats: (1) while exposing themselves to risk (physical, emotional, to their reputations) or danger; and (2) doing so in order to benefit others. Examples might include, exploring previously undiscovered places, saving others in time of war, or teaching girls to read in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

By that definition, and I say this as a dedicated fan of sport, there is nothing inherently heroic about athletics; athletics being simply being a category of popular entertainment.

The latest revelations about Lance Armstrong have led to a by-now typical round of hand-wringing about the loss of our “heroes.” At this late date, anyone – and I mean anyone – who holds sports personalities as heroes must be: (1) a child, (2) hopelessly ignorant, or (3) both blind and deaf.

Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour de France have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their careers or have been officially linked to doping.

Major-league baseball’s latest, but by no means only high-profile cheaters, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon. Colon was having a solid year and Cabrera was selected MVP of the All-Star game before being caught taking banned performance enhancing substances.

In previous years, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez were all-star baseball players who used banned drugs.

Olympian and universally-beloved “golden girl” Marion Jones admitted to using steroids.

Want real heroes? Find people worthy of the title.

At the age of 32, Physicist Sally Ride became an astronaut and was the first American woman to orbit the earth. Marine sergeant and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer risked his own life to save 13 US troops and 23 Afghan soldiers by providing the cover in a firefight necessary for their escape. Mohandas Gandhi exposed himself to prison, beatings and ridicule in his fight for Indian rights and independence.

Barry Bonds and his ilk, pardon the expression, aren’t even in the same league.

As long as we continue to elevate entertainment personalities, both athletes and others, to the status of heroes, we’ll continue to go through this wrenching but, in the end, essentially empty and meaningless cycle of apotheosis and public destruction.

This Post Is Not (Just) About Sports

If you know or care anything about baseball, professional sports, or the San Francisco Giants, if you’ve watched the news or read a newspaper in the last day, if you pay attention to issues like the use of performance enhancing drugs, you already know about Melky Cabrera.

For those who don’t, here’s the 30-second version:

Melky Cabrera is a professional baseball player for the San Francisco Giants. He was having a stellar year, leading the National League in hits and being selected the Most Valuable Player in professional baseball’s all-star game earlier this summer. Yesterday, the league suspended him for taking performance enhancing drugs, a clear violation of league policy. As a result, during a particularly critical moment in the season, his team will be without his services.

Simple, right? Cabrera cheated, got caught, pays the consequences.

Not so simple, as it turns out.

His teammates pay a pretty steep price for trusting him. They go into their final drive for the pennant (trying to win their league’s championship) without a big piece of their team. In interviews with other Giants, you could see the betrayal on their faces, in their words and halting speech.

Fans, too, have every right to their anger and disappointment. The team itself? Sure. Vendors, stores selling Giants merchandise, restaurants and bars around the park? Yes, them too.

Turns out, Cabrera’s decision to use banned drugs was anything but personal. His deliberate cheating affected a great many people.

And here’s why this is not (just) a sports story. We have, in recent times, seen many examples of public figures choosing to engage in self-damaging behavior that causes widespread ‘collateral damage’ as well. Sandusky/Paterno/Penn State is simply the latest and best known example in a very long and very sad history.

My professional life involves helping people and institutions in moments like these. I have seen firsthand the damage people can leave in their wakes, sometimes quite blithely. Melky Cabrera is a successful professional athlete, so we can watch the pain he’s inflicted on others in the newspapers, on television and playing fields.

Other cheaters do their damage in darker, quieter places.