This column is also award-winning writer Frank Deford's weekly sports commentary on NPR.
These have certainly been dispiriting times for those who admire athletes, who proclaim that sports builds character. The horrendous shooting by Oscar Pistorius is, of course, in a category mercifully unapproached since the O.J. Simpson case, but the whole-earth catalog of recent examples of athletic character-building is certainly noteworthy.
In the illegal drugs category we have, of course, Lance Armstrong and a whole roster from our national pastime, including two most valuable players: Alex Rodriguez, who's already been nabbed once; and Ryan Braun, who only escaped conviction through a dubious loophole. Throughout Europe, in hundreds of matches, "the beautiful game," soccer, turns out to have more corrupt players on the fix than do Illinois politics.
Our glorious intercollegiate football champions, Alabama, have given us three student-athletes who were caught roaming the campus, mugging real student-students. It was comforting to learn from Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide mentor, that such behavior was, quote, "unacceptable ... and not representative of our football program." That's telling it like it is, coach: we at Alabama draw a line in the sand at assault, battery and grand theft when it comes to our players.
Naughtiness is apparently more, uh, acceptable in the NBA. Thanks to a compilation by the Los Angeles Times, we learn that one Laker has just received his 12th suspension for grabbing [an opponent] around the neck and striking him in the jaw. The player, you will be interested to know, now goes by the name of Metta World Peace. It is also a matter of record that after his ninth suspension, the NBA, in its wisdom, awarded said Mr. World Peace the NBA's Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.
What invariably fascinates me anew after incidents such as these is that observers rush to caution fans to be wary of worshipping athletes as heroes. But really, can there be any grown-ups left who do not understand that sports stars are only that: people playing games? Given how fast children grow up now and how difficult it is to conceal reality from them, is it even possible any longer that intelligent kids hold athletes up to be the same heroes in their lives that they are in their games?
But it's still the case that when other performers -- actors or musicians -- are caught misbehaving, nobody laments that children's dreams are being destroyed. Despite all the continuing evidence that a great many young males who play sports -- like young males in every society -- are inclined toward unacceptable behavior, we maintain the wishful thinking that athletes should be admired and emulated. We do love sport so; we do so want to believe the best for it.
Please, please, we want to say: tell us that Oscar Pistorius is not an athlete.