The Wrong People for the Job

Why expect athletes to be role models, when they could scarcely be less suited to the task?
December 23, 1991

Position available: hero/role model. Job description: Be perfect. Requirements: Some supernatural skills, nice smile. (Suitability also may depend on an FBI-style check of all people applicant has come in contact with since birth.) Hours: Forever. Pay: None. (Outside revenue possibilities substantial.) Benefits: See own face everywhere. Retirement: When scandal hits.

Even in recessionary times like these, one would have to think twice before applying for this opening. And yet it's a job that is thrust upon all our sports stars, whether they've asked for it or not. We feel that because a person can run fast, hit hard, jump high, dunk a ball or knock one into the parking lot, that person is someone to be admired and emulated and even listened to, despite the fact that none of his skills have much value away from the playing venue. (How would an Olympic cyclist fare as a midtown Manhattan delivery boy pressed between two buses at Broadway and 42nd?)

And so we are continually let clown by our sports demigods. It could hardly be otherwise, since our desire to have athletes fill these roles is so great and our scrutiny of them so intense—and the athletes themselves are so unsuited for such duty—that failure is inevitable. Who has let us down recently? Pete Rose, Otis Nixon, Magic Johnson, to name a few. Before that, pick 'em: from Doc Gooden to Len Bias to Billy Cannon to Art Schlichter to Mercury Morris to Denny McLain to Shoeless Joe Jackson to probably some other superathlete in ancient Greece.

Now, in a new book, The Jordan Rules by Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith, we are told that Michael Jordan, SI's Sportsman of the Year, is selfish, mercenary and vindictive, that he once told other Chicago Bulls teammates never to throw the ball to center Bill Cartwright at the end of games, that he bullied former teammate Brad Sellers to the point that Sellers's already borderline game disintegrated, that he tried to get Chicago general manager Jerry Krause fired, that he, well, that he's not the always sweet, simple guy we see on Wheaties boxes. In short, he's human. Quite human. Another hero bites—or, at least, nibbles—the dust.

So there are two questions to be answered here. Why are we so desperate to have athletes be our role models? And why are athletes so ill suited to fulfill this task?

First, we insist athletes be heroes because of the nature of games. Games are not like life, no matter what your eighth-grade coach told you. They are wonderfully unlike life in that they have specific beginnings and ends, precise rules, prescribed boundaries, judges, penalties, timeouts and, at the end, losers and winners. Do we have any of those things for sure in life? No. What games give us is certainty. And certainty is what we spend our lives trying to attain, for with certainty comes confidence, contentment and peace. Thus, winners in games seem to have what we want most. The catch is that athletes have attained this surety in something that has almost nothing to do with the real world. But we don't care. Our own lives are so vague and mundane; these jocks, these winners, will be our role models, or else!

Athletes are ill prepared to lead the way because they have worked exclusively to become successes at these amusing things—these games—which, as we know, are not like life. Great athletes almost always have tunnel vision. Their jobs are simple and do not require reflection. Indeed, self-consciousness is an athlete's mortal enemy. Great athletes are a lot like children—innocent, naive, egocentric, fiercely competitive. And they rise and fall on the outcome of simple events: a ball struck, a leap taken, a cheer heard. In my 20 years as a sportswriter I have never yet met a great athlete I wouldn't describe, at least in part, as childish.

Athletes fall the hardest at precisely those moments when the simplicity of their nature bumps into the complexity of the adult world, when they lose out to juries, agents, financial traps, drugs, sex, gambling, sneaky writers. Consequently the public wants most for its heroes to stay out of trouble. The absence of vice in a star jock has become more important than the presence of virtue. Just don't do something negative, baby.

We end up with Jordan saying in Smith's book that getting caught in a scandal is his "greatest fear. I've spent a life building something positive, and I know any mistake I make could damage that for the rest of my life. People look to their role models to be almost flawless.... It's hard to live up to something like that, really harder than basketball. It's really the biggest job I have."

It shouldn't be. Jordan should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, not because his image demands it. And the public should ease up, too. We should quit buying cereal or shoes or soft drinks just because an athlete says to buy them. We shouldn't demand perfection from anyone. We should let kids know that dads and moms, or any head of the household, are the most authentic role models around. And most of all, we should make sure kids know that superstars are flawed people, just like the rest of us. Kids can handle that.

"We need never fear an objective appraisal of our heroes," Thomas Reeves wrote in A Question of Character, an analysis of John F. Kennedy and the lore that surrounds him. "Truth is ultimately more enlightening and satisfying than myth." Indeed, it is. And the real Michael Jordan is more enlightening by far than the images of him on the shelves in the supermarket, on TV or even in magazines.