Why do we cheer for athletes? Is it because they can do what we can’t – dunk a basketball, spin a football, crush a baseball, or smash a golf ball? Is it because we have low self-esteem? I don’t know. But I do know this – New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was recently suspended four games for allegedly deflating footballs in January’s AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. I don’t know for sure what happened that day. Maybe Brady did it. Maybe he didn’t. One thing I do know is that whenever Brady re-takes the field, fans will cheer him. The question is why?
Put yourself in Brady’s Uggs for a second. Supermodel wife. Supermodel life. He thinks if he takes a little air out of the football, he’ll improve his chances of getting to another Super Bowl at age 37. It might be his last. If you were Brady, what would you do? The same thing Brady is accused of doing. You’d take a little air out. And you wouldn’t admit to anything if at all until well after the Super Bowl, knowing full well that if you did, there’s a good chance you’d be suspended for the big game. Is that arrogance or just doing whatever it takes to win?
One of my favorite things to do is to listen to my favorite sports talk radio show, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, when I’m running or when I’m out on the driving range. I find it therapeutic. Colin makes me smarter because he often frames topics in a different way – and they’re not always sports-related. I always get a different perspective. The other day, Colin made a great point about this very topic. Here’s an excerpt from that segment of the show:
“Everybody’s pushing the envelope. In the end, it’s all about winning. The message the public sends to stars is ‘just win.’ Just win. We’ll forget all the other stuff. In Baltimore, they love Ray Lewis. In San Francisco, they love Barry Bonds. The message we send is ‘just win.’ We’ll always forgive you. If you keep sending that message to the star, don’t be shocked if the star pushes the envelope. Cause that’s what you want to win games! I always call LeBron (James) the great eraser. So is winning. People will look past your values, how you treat your wife, your family. Nobody cares. Fans cheer winners, not guys with good values who stink. So when you cheer it, that’s why athletes push it.”
And you know what? Colin is right! We cheer it, and that’s why athletes push it. I don’t think winning is the great eraser – like the neuralyzer from the Men In Black movies. I don’t think we forget. I think we choose not to remember. Fans cheer winners, not legacy. So who cares if Brady deflated footballs? We’ve told him that raising Lombardi trophies is all that matters, not how you do it.
Think about it. The list of athletes and coaches who have had indiscretions is seemingly endless: O.J. Simpson, Ray Lewis, Barry Bonds, Bill Belichick, Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi, Pete Carroll, Tiger Woods, and Alex Rodriguez. Every time they’ve come back, we’ve cheered them. Look at Rodriguez. A-Rod cheated baseball. He cheated the game and then lied about it. And then he did it again! But because he’s the most interesting player on the New York Yankees and has them atop the standings in the American League East, fans give him a standing ovation. We’re pathetic. We have such low self-esteem!
Look at how fans reacted to LeBron James leaving Cleveland for Miami in the summer of 2010. Shortly after announcing his decision, Cavaliers fans poured out into the streets and started burning LeBron’s No. 23 jerseys. Insane right? Flash forward to the summer of 2014 when LeBron announced he was coming home. These same fans, the ones who burned their LeBron jerseys when he left, flocked back to stores to buy more jerseys! That had to make LeBron laugh and cry… at the same time. We keep going to the games. We keep buying the jerseys. And we don’t care how the sausage is made, we just want the sausage.
If we keep looking up to athletes, we’ll always be disappointed. Deep down, they’re just like us. We’re all human. When I was a kid, I had posters of Oakland Athletics outfielder Jose Canseco covering my bedroom walls. I remember crying when he was traded to the Texas Rangers. My best friend up the street had a mural of New York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry painted on his bedroom wall. I’m not joking. Canseco beat his wife and used steroids. Strawberry used cocaine. Yet these men were our heroes. We admired them. We wanted to be like them.
Someday, I’m going to be a father. And I’m going to have to tell my kids that it’s okay to look up to athletes for the feats they perform on the field, the diamond, the court, or the course. But I’m also going to have to tell them not to admire them as people. Because they’re human, and we are too. Instead of putting up another lousy poster of another tragically-flawed athlete that’ll just have to be taken down when he lets us down, I think I’ll do some parenting.
Shame on you. Shame on me. Shame on us.