Hero Worship and Pro Athletes: Why Do We Keep Doing It?

Posted by Talal Albagdadi on

Hero worship is alive and well in professional athletics. The press, sponsors and fans are always hungry for the next big thing. We manufacture superstars on a regular basis and then worship them like gods until they make a mistake and then we relish in tearing them down. The list of fallen heroes in professional sports is almost endless.
hero athletes why do we worship themLance Armstrong overcame cancer, won the Tour de France seven times and started a movement to help aid in cancer recovery. Over eighty million “Live Strong” bracelets were sold before Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven titles for doping. I’ll never forget the French fans on the sidelines of the Tour de France screaming “drugs” at him as he passed by on his way to a seventh title. While fans in the U.S. were still turning a blind eye to all the allegations that he was doping the French already knew Lance was cheating.
Pete Rose was the greatest hitter in the history of Major League Baseball with 4,256 hits over a career that spanned over two decades. He has three World Series rings, three batting titles and two golden gloves. However, he will never be in the Baseball Hall of Fame because he committed the ultimate sin… he bet on the game while he was a player and a manager. In 1991 the Baseball Hall of Fame voted to make him “permanently ineligible” from induction. Despite all his accomplishments Pete Rose may never be formally acknowledged or recognized as one of the greatest ever to play professional baseball.

tiger woods fallen heroesNike marketed Tiger Woods as a squeaky clean straight laced family man for years. He then hit a tree with his car after a fight with his wife revealing a troubled marriage. Soon after the accident no less than fourteen women came forward to say that they had an affair with him. How Tiger Woods was capable of cheating on former Swedish model Elin Nordegren is beyond comprehension. He was the youngest golfer ever to win the Masters and the highest paid athlete in the world for three years with lucrative endorsements from Nike and Titleist. He has won 79 official PGA Tour events including 14 majors. However, his career and his brand were never the same after the scandal and his divorce from Elin Nordegren.
Michael Vick was the Atlanta Falcons number one pick in the NFL draft and made over $100 million playing football. During his early years in the NFL he was widely regarded as the most exciting quarterback in the game. He could pass, improvise and was lightning quick when he needed to be. In 2007 he was implicated in an illegal interstate dog fighting ring and the stories of his behavior are hard to stomach. He engaged in drowning and hanging dogs that didn’t perform well in the ring. There are few things more distasteful to the American palette than animal cruelty. Michael Vick pleaded guilty to federal felony charges and served 21 months in prison. Atlanta Falcons fans were humiliated and embarrassed but at least Michael Vick was punished. More often than not rich athletes are able to finance their way out of any real punishment.

lance armstrong cheating scandal

An angel falling from grace is a timeless theme and apparently one of which we will never tire. These are just a few examples and don’t include notable downfalls such as O.J. Simpson, South Africa Olympian Oscar Pistorius and Olympic Sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner. Why do we give these athletes mythical status? It’s because we can’t help but admire what we see as greatness, talent and resolve. Some of these athletes deserve to be admired for their skills. Tiger Woods is still one of the greatest golfers of all time and no one can deny that Pete Rose has 4,256 hits. However, on the other side there are the performances that most likely involved cheating which cannot be measured by the same standard. Cheating through the use of drugs or any other means should not be tolerated. Athletes like Lance Armstrong, Sprinter Ben Johnson, Roger Clemens, Mark McGuire and Alex Rodriguez will forever be tainted by the use of steroids or blood doping. They squandered their talents and were unable to reach their true potential without the use of drugs.
tom brady deflate gateIt will be interesting to see how New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s legacy will be affected by the “Deflate-gate” scandal. The NFL suspended him for four games. If he was aware the equipment crew were deflating footballs he should have come clean immediately. Adamant denial has always made athletes look worse. As Mark Twain said “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” It also doesn’t help that his coach Bill Belichick was caught up in the “Spy-gate” scandal just a few years earlier. New England fans may be the only ones able to look past these transgressions. Tom Brady's move to Tampa may be an attempt to prove himself without Belichick.
Some of these athletes deserve the admiration they receive on the golf course, baseball diamond, football field or basketball court but that’s where it should end. We shouldn’t expect them to be any different than we are in their personal lives and choices. Some would argue that superstar athletes should be held to a higher standard but that would deny their humanity. Charles Barkley is known for his candor in declaring “I am not a role model!” His words stirred up controversy at the time but they still apply. They may be great athletes but that does not mean they are great people. Let’s admire them for their talent and realize that off the field of play they may not live up to our expectations.

Photo Credits:
“Fallen Angel Lance Armstrong” – Lance-0 via photopin (license)
“Tiger Woods’ Tainted Brand” – Tiger Woods via photopin (license)
“Did Tom Brady Know?” – Tom Brady via photopin (license)
“Tour de France Victimized” – Peleton via photopin (license)

“Tiger Woods” – Wikipedia
“The Victor is Spoiled” – The Economist
“Pete Rose: A Walking Contraction” – ESPN

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