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Do we need heroes in sports?

Jul 6, 2011, 10:20 AM EDT

Mickey Mantle AP

Buzz Bissinger has a post up over at The Daily Beast today, lamenting the absence of colorful heroes, rakes and rogues in sports today:

Sports are bigger than ever. It occupies us more than ever. It is ever exploding. There are still routinely great performances. But behind those performances there is less and less human dimension, either colorful or heroic … Are there any athletes in the modern-day era of sports either truly heroic or just truly colorful?

He comes up with a few examples. In the hero category he rightfully cites Pat Tillman, although his heroism had little to do with sports as such.  He also names a couple of people who fit the “colorful” bill well enough by virtue of their lack of self-censorship, like Rex Ryan, but notes that, for the most part, sports figures are programmed to be dull and non-responsive and private.

And he’s right.  It’s just that I just don’t know that this is a problem for anyone besides sports writers looking for juicy quotes.  While I love the stories about players of yore, the ones I love the most aren’t really about heroism as we tend to define it within the context of sports.  They’re the things written by or about people on the margins (think Jim Bouton), not the stuff written about the big names as they’re making their big marks.  The Mickey Mantle book that came out last year was way more insightful and interesting than anything anyone got from him when he was the king of the world.

Moreover, I don’t know that, insight aside, it’s all that healthy for our society to celebrate athletes as heroes.  How many of those would-be heroes pan out as true heroes over time?  How many role models turn out to be anything but?  Bissinger correctly notes that the relatively bloodless content of the game — the live action and recaps and box scores and all of that — has taken precedence, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  If anything, it helps us to remember that sports are just that — sports — and not some substitute for real life. As always, XKCD got it right when it comes to identifying what we’re really doing when we try to make sporting events into something greater than what they are.

I get what Bissinger is saying. And as someone who grew up on the sort of sports coverage in which heroes and rogues meant everything, I too sort of miss the lack of color we see today and like it when someone breaks from the “I’m just trying to help the ballclub” script.

But I don’t know that it’s a bad thing in an absolute sense. It’s just where sports and society is heading. And it may very well us to bring some different perspectives into the sporting world that could, just maybe, make our society’s relationship with sports a bit more healthy than it was in an age where narratives were applied and dramatic roles were assigned to people playing what are, in effect, random games.

  1. shaggylocks - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    Buzz apparently missed this:

    • skipperxc - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:50 AM

      also this:

  2. seattletony - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    Is it better to have loved and lost, than to not have loved at all?

  3. yankeesfanlen - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    I’m commenting on only a small part of this greater thought, specifically sports books. The newest Mickey Mantle book was so much better than the dozens written about him during the 50s-80s. If you wanted to know about that game-tying double in Cleveland in 1956, hey, there you go.
    “56” (DiMaggio) and “The Life and Times of Babe Ruth” and even-dare I say it- “The Captain” finally bring the outside world to blend in with a player’s narrative.
    The modern books make our now-colorless players more interesting. The old books tended to make colorful personalities bland.
    I am completely discounting, of course, hacks who do it for a buck, as in Selena Roberts and whoever wrote that DiMag claptrap 7-8 years ago., That still happens.

    • sdelmonte - Jul 6, 2011 at 11:01 AM

      I am loathe to remind you of the name of the clown who wrote that DiMaggio book. But after reading it, books like The Last Boy – which wasn’t perfect but at least didn’t come in with an axe to grind against everyone and everything related to baseball – are a pleasure to read.

  4. Jonny 5 - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    “color” = controversy and 20 or more blogs and some journalists destroying people’s moral character over anything said that can also be deemed as “off color”. I don’t blame these guys for going by the script at all. I’m shocked “the right answers” aren’t sewn into their hat brims.

    The guy in that picture would be made out as the devil himself if he dealt with today’s media machine.

  5. Matt - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    Since heroism in sports is largely a media creation, isn’t it then the fault of Buzz and his media cronies for their inability to create sports heroes out of everyday players?

    • shaggylocks - Jul 6, 2011 at 11:00 AM

      Seriously. If guys like Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, and Adrian Gonzales aren’t “heroic” enough for Buzz, perhaps we need to start putting our athletes in more heroism-inducing situations. Can Pujols field that grounder while simultaneously rescuing that kitten from a tree? Can Bautista hit a mugger with a home run ball? Can Gonzales save that baby from the burning building as he hits a double of the Green Monster? Seriously, fellas, step up.

      • kopy - Jul 6, 2011 at 11:17 AM

      • Matt - Jul 6, 2011 at 11:24 AM

        Bautista can’t be a hero, didn’t you hear? He’s a steroid user, just ask Jon Harper who undoubtedly has some evidence he’s withheld to justify writing such a claim.

  6. kopy - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    Sports figures have always had flaws. We used to have heroes because we didn’t have advanced celebrity-style journalism and real-time social networking to expose these flaws.

  7. sdelmonte - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    I grew up with the same coverage as you, Craig, and I never found myself seeing athletes as heroes. Maybe it was a parallel religious upbringing in a Jewish community that never put much stock in physically active heroes (unless the hero was Judah Macabee or Moshe Dayan). Maybe it was growing up a fan of various super-heroes, who were larger than life and a lot more likeable than Reggie Jackson or Dave Kingman. No matter. I always saw athletes as just athletes. It never dampened my love of the game that I saw them then and now as just people who play a game.

  8. royalsfaninfargo - Jul 6, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Unless someone has done something truly heroic (such as saving a life, sacrificing themselves for the betterment of others, etc…) no one in sports comes anywhere near being a “hero” for what they do on the field. Granted the things some athletes do for charities and special causes are very good and help bring attention to those causes, but w/o fancy PR departments to highlight those activities (and some athletes are contractually obligated to do those things) they would be no different than the millions of ordinary people who help out every day. As a vet I have a very high standard for what I classify as a “hero” and some reporter trying to fill space talking about athletes as hero’s really dumbs down the definition.

  9. Old Gator - Jul 6, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    I think the answer is to replace human ballplayers with animals and androids. I would just love to see a chimpanzee in a baseball uniform sitting on a swing and playing with himself just like he’d do at Monkey Jungle while Tim McCarver tries to conduct an interview. And imagine the stench in the locker room if the ballplayers were simians! Not only would they not say anything stupid in the first place – I mean, who can argue with “eeerk! eeerk! eeerk!” on moral grounds? – but they’d be urinating and defecating all over the place and forget all about showering. Not only would that put a stop to all these distaff journalists kvetching for access to the locker room just like their male counterparts, who wouldn’t particularly want to go in there either, but Scrooge McLoria and the Chihuahua, for one set of execs, would love not having to spend money on soap for the showers and Downy softener for the jockstraps.

    Heroes? Yeah, sure. What ill-mannered little brat wouldn’t go over to Rafiki at the local bagel deli right while he was in the middle of masticating a banana and hassle him for an autograph?

    • bigharold - Jul 6, 2011 at 5:34 PM

      “I would just love to see a chimpanzee in a baseball uniform sitting on a swing and playing with himself just like he’d do at Monkey Jungle while Tim McCarver tries to conduct an interview.”

      Hey, … McCarver might actually say something interesting, .. you never know. Likely the monkey would upstage him eventually but it sounds like it’s worth a try.

  10. bigharold - Jul 6, 2011 at 6:31 PM

    There are heroes of sorts in baseball as well as all sports but understand that the term “hero” is something of a moving target.

    Some are heroes only because of the monumental things that they do on a baseball field. Like Babe Ruth or dare I say even Ty Cobb. Neither was particularly well behaved off field but at least Ruth wasn’t a complete SOB like Cobb. Just a self indulgent and often boorish ball player who happened to be the best hitter of his era by such a wide margin it’s barely fathomable today. Think about this; if a guy hit .342, 46 HR and 143 RBIs with a .474 OBP today going into a FA year he’d be assured of a nine figure contract, well those were Ruth’s career stats. While both did heroic things on a baseball field neither could be argued as a role model.

    Others are heroes not merely because of their great feats of baseball but their place in history too. Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson for obvious reason would fall into that category. Still others are tragic heroes because of the baseball prowess and their untimely death like Roberto Clemente and Thurmond Munson.

    Some are heroes because of their sports prowess and the fact that they came to be known as uncommonly good people and in most cases something of characters. Stan Musial, Walter Payton Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto comes to mind. i’m sure there are others so no howling if I left off your favorite.

    The last are professional athletes that do truly heroic things that really have nothing to do with sports, .. as was mentioned Pat Tilman. Also, a long for gotten Joe Delaney. Delaney was the 1981 ROY in the NFL for the Chiefs. He died almost thirty years ago after jumping into a pond trying to save three kids from drowning, this despite the fact that he could swim himself.

    Do we have sports heroes, .. absolutely. Do we need them? It’s like chicken soup, .. it couldn’t hurt. What we can’t or shouldn’t do is set them up as Gods, .. because it is neither fair or smart. And, while athletes should be reminded that like it or not they have a responsibility to fans to comport themselves like grownups because kids ARE watching as parent we should guard against them becoming role models for our kids. I see nothing gained and much risked by abdicating or responsibilities as parents.

    In the end I think that yes we do need’em in moderation.

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