Seeing Through the Illusions of the Sports Hero

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That wise basketball philosopher Charles Barkley once declared, ''I am not a role model.'' A star with the Phoenix Suns at the time, Barkley was lambasted by a large portion of the news media who insisted that high-profile athletes, by virtue of their celebrity, should act like paragons of virtue, even if they weren't. Barkley, in his text for a Nike advertisement, was referring to role models, not sports heroes, but the concepts come from the same deep-seated need to make things what they are not. We crave illusion, and athletes have historically been vessels of our self-deception. In light of the dramatic falls of Michael Vick, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tiger Woods and now Lance Armstrong, we need to either recalibrate our definition of the sports hero or scrap it altogether. The concept is based largely on ignorance: the less we know about an athlete, the easier it becomes to invest him with lofty ideals. The ideals have little to do with the athlete's character and everything to do with creating an artificial construct that serves a need. Sports heroism contains a number of elements. There is the emotion of heroism. My father loved Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, and he wasn't alone. They were icons of an era. After Louis defeated Primo Carnera in 1935, a writer for The Los Angeles Times gushed: ''The colored race couldn't have chosen two more remarkable men than Jesse Owens and Joe Louis to be its outstanding representatives. Owens is being hailed as the greatest track and field athlete of all time, same thing goes for 'Dead Pan' Joe Louis, whose decisive defeat of Carnera has sent the scribes scurrying to the dictionaries seeking superlatives of greater scope than any they've used before.'' There is the propaganda of heroism. Louis and Owens -- the grandsons of slaves and the sons of sharecroppers -- were tools of an American image-making

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