I get a kick out of Charles Barkley and Barry Bonds and all the rest saying they never signed up to be role models, when being a role model is as much a part of the deal as a uniform and a cap. Signing autographs for patient fans and behaving in a way that doesn’t embarrass your employer or encourage felonies among teenagers doesn’t seem like too much to ask for all the millions athletes gets paid these days.
I got to thinking about all this on a recent trip to the nation’s capital - certainly a place where role models are also in short supply. The anniversary of a historic baseball moment would have gone unnoticed by me, and many others, last month had Dick Heller not written about it in the Washington Times. On May 2, 1939 Lou Gehrig’s consecutive playing streak of 2,130 games ended, by Gehrig’s choice and for the good of his team, which is the way the sports world seemed to operate before long-term contracts, lockouts, and drug-testing.
I’m sure Gehrig had some flaws, but probably the film that immortalized him, “Pride of the Yankees,” wasn’t too much Hollywood hokum, either (for a review of the movie, see Joel Blumberg's May 15 column by clicking here). Gehrig was a superior player, and might have gone on to become the second best player of all-time, behind Babe Ruth, had he not been struck down by ALS, the degenerative neurological condition that now bears his name as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
But Gehrig is also remembered for playing day in and day out, through minor bruises and painful injuries - and then volunteering to abandon his streak because he wasn’t helping his team anymore. Compare that to basketball players who refuse to go back into a game after they’ve been called to the bench or slumping ballplayers who bellyache when they’re asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt.
Today we’re faced with athletes who cheat, pout, and devise conspiracy theories whenever they’re required to be at practice on time or expected to be accountable for their own mistakes. Bonds complains that the media is trying to tear him down, but thank goodness for Selena Roberts in The New York Times. She pointed out that it was not the media who arranged for Bonds to have an affair with a woman who, once discarded, ran to the feds with allegations of his steroid use.
Now, I’m aware that pro sports have for decades been the refuge of alcoholics, womanizers, racists, and homophobes. But the degree to which the modern athletes have abandoned their responsibility to be good citizens - at least in the public eye - seems to be increasing at the rate of global warming. I much prefer the approach of tennis legend Chris Evert, who used unmentionable language under her breath at courtside, but sanitized her vocabulary for the interviews that would be broadcast to the adoring public.
I marvel of the dignity and grace of Derek Jeter, whose pure-vanilla quotes may not satisfy reporters aching for a scoop, but who spent a day visiting a sick child in a New Jersey hospital. Then Jeter had him and his parents flown to Yankee Stadium to a game, where he met all the other Yankees who, no doubt, were thoughtful and kind, characteristics we’d like to see in more ballplayers, more often.
I wonder why it is necessary for an athlete earning $15 million a year to be tempted by an appearance fee amounting to cab fare to participate in a trade show where the organizer charges schoolchildren $50 admission to get autographs. Or why they feel compelled to taunt opponents, pound their chests, or jitterbug in the end zone.
Instead of feeling fortunate that God blessed them with the talent that has enriched their bank accounts and made them celebrities, these athletes treat the few and easy responsibilities of stardom as some catastrophe, like famine or plague, or some crippling disease like, say, ALS.
You didn’t sign up to be a role model? Oh, yes you did, the moment you put on the uniform.