When I was a little kid, I pretended to be Michael Jordan each time I stepped on a basketball court. To this day I still stick my tongue when I concentrate like MJ. It never occurred to me that athletes could be anything other than smiling demigods like they were presented in Sports Illustrated for Kids. I simply did not conceive of a universe where Michael Jordan was not as great of a person as he was a basketball player. Then at some point, I'm not sure when, that illusion was shattered. Jordan became just another guy.
Jordan was not the only athlete that I idolized. I have been reflecting on when I lost my sports idols over the last two weeks, as stories appear every day that athletes we admire on the field turn out to be less admirable off the field. Many have argued athletes should not be looked upon as role models. I'm willing to grant that argument because I've always found it irrelevant.
Idols will be a by-product as long as sports are presented and consumed like they are presently. We have to cheer for someone. Sports are an imagined community. No matter how hard we try, we can never know all the people who express allegiance to the same banner. Nevertheless, I feel a shared affinity with anyone wearing a Minnesota shirt at a bar. We will frequently use the pronoun "we" to refer to a team that we have never been a physical part of. We will buy jerseys that have specific numbers on them. We will make up chants and nicknames for individual players who arbitrarily decided to spend their college years in Minneapolis. Frequently we will address players by their first name despite never meeting.
Simon Barnes argued that sports fulfill the very real human need to be part of an experience with others. After all, an individual game is entirely meaningless without an audience. If no one shows up, they still play, and something sublime may happen with no cameras. I'll never know because no one will be able to gif the highlight. The "Miracle on Ice" is nothing without being able to watch and hear Al Michaels scream "Do you believe in miracles?"
Unfortunately, shared experiences have consequences. One of them is that those who can do amazing things on some form of rectangle can become very rich and very powerful. If they're smart, they can hire people to maintain an image of perfection. They can become influential, metaphors for toughness, perseverance, and heart. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, they can become role models. Most likely chafe at the construction while enjoying the perks.
When real life manages to creep into our imagined community, there is always a contingent of people who claim we should avoid the conversation, that it is somehow out of scope, that we should stick to sports. I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree. Communities never change without action from within. As Jerry Kill frequently says, "I hear what you say, but I'll trust what you do." Being an educated fan has to come with the responsibility to place sports idols in their proper context. That does not mean jumping to conclusions from facts not in evidence, but it does mean being critical consumers of entertainment. It means being willing to call out actions that are not in line with the standards that we set. For men like myself, it must also mean rejecting violence towards others from anyone, especially if they are a star athlete. How we decide to face these problems will be important to those who come after us.
A child in a replica jersey will be watching.