During the noon hour yesterday I was driving about town, on a dual mission to pick up some medicine for my wife and lull my older son to sleep in the SUV. As is sometimes the case, I was listening to ESPN radio. Around that time of day Colin Cowherd is on. Usually Cowherd isn't funny enough for me to give an extended listen, but I suppose I was feeling "sports-talky" because I didn't change the station or pop in a CD.
Cowherd was having an argument with his listeners over the nature of pro atheletes. In his opinion pro atheletes are entertainers and so if we hold them to a different standard of behavior than we hold actors or rock stars we are being hypocritical. I agree that pro atheletes are nothing more than entertainers, but the topic got me thinking: why do we hold pro atheletes to the aforementioned different standard? My conclusion has to do with the different "traditions" actors, rock stars, and atheletes fall into.
Actors and rock stars fall into an artistic tradition. In this tradition pushing the envelope is a part of the package. Rock and roll especially was weaned on rebellion. Acting has been a haven for the odd and/or immoral for centuries. We expect actors and rock stars to follow in this tradition. For many this is one of the main factors for becoming an actor/rock star.
On the other hand, sports fall into a militaristic tradition. Think about it: How many war metaphors are used in describing athletic achievement? Atheletes are considered heroes in the vein of ancient warriors. Warfare now is far removed from us in America (thankfully) and even when we see broadcasts of battles all we see are rolling tanks, flying planes and firing rockets. We never see and rarely hear of the heroics of warriors in battle. Additionally, war is thankfully more rare than it was in the ancient past. It also relies less on the physical abilities of individual combatants. In order to replace these combatants in the popular mind, we choose our atheletes. I suppose it's because the physical "battle" that sports entail.
We hold Kobe Bryant to a higher standard because deep down we want him to be Hector, running out in defense of Troy. Brett Favre with his 200 straight starts under center is the invincible Achilles (if his career ends with an ankle injury don't blame me). Culturally we seem to need these heroes, and we need them to be legendary.
Am I arguing that we should look to atheletes to be examples for our children? Not necessarily. We should evaluate atheletes the same way we would examine any other potential hero. We would probably be better off if we could just get past the need to hero-worship others, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Every culture needs myth, and the world of sport is one of our most fertile and accessible gardens.