Sports Heroes

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Sports Heroes

Americans look to their sporting heroes to be models of courage, discipline, strong character, and success; those perceived to be breaking the rules of the game are stereotyped as villains. In the last third of the century, the media has demanded that the hero's off-field conduct matters nearly as much as the onfield performance. In addition to winning the physical contest, the hero must negotiate other conflicts: the technicalities of the game's rules; overcoming physical pain; and negotiating the pitfalls of private self-doubt. This accounts for the American notion that sports, in addition to building physical skills, also builds moral character. Therefore, the sports hero often transcends the athletic arena: "Because their lives helped, in part, to shape our values, habits, and, arguably, the content of our character, no full understanding of America is possible without an understanding of its sports idols," argue Robert Lipsyte and Peter Levine in Idols of the Game.

Developments in communications technologies throughout the twentieth century changed the sports they broadcast. The rise of radio transformed local hero athletes into national icons. As television began reaching a wider audience, the expanded broadcasting of events created an insatiable need to find and promote heroes. Televised sports created a shared experience, in which national audiences participated in their heroes' victory or defeat, or bore witness to an athlete's sportsmanship or misconduct. "The most outstanding [athletes]," writes John Izod in "Television Sport and the Sacrificial Hero," "become media personalities, and as such they reveal their hopes and fears as well as their thoughts about the game to the viewer." The proliferation of statistics in modern-day sport has helped create an overabundance of sports heroes. Figures such as "most career home runs" or "career average rushing yards per carry" help the transfixed fan distinguish a pantheon of great athletes emanating from the television factory.

According to sociologist Orrin Klapp, author of the 1949 study "Hero Worship in America," the emotional behavior of hero worship encompasses "popular homage, familiarity, possessiveness, curiosity, identification, and imitation." Fans identify with their heroes by adopting their uniforms, mannerisms, and even their style. As an ad from the 1920s proclaimed: "A Spalding Swimming Suit won't teach you to swim. But it will make you feel like an Olympic champion." Following his 1969 Super Bowl triumph with the New York Jets, fans began wearing sideburns in emulation of pro quarterback Joe Namath. The veneration bestowed upon the sports hero often creates demigods, as this piece on Namath from Esquire demonstrates:

Once in a generation, more or less, a chosen figure detaches himself from the social matrix and swims into mythology, hovering somewhere near the center of the universe, organizing in himself our attention, monopolizing our hopes and fears, intruding on our dreams, compelling our hearts to beat as his.

The sports hero is at once distant, placed in high-esteem, and simultaneously the subject of intense personal interest. This intense curiosity sometimes turns into a possessive need need to learn more about the hero. Klapp quotes boxer Jack Dempsey's description of the fans who forced themselves into his dressing room:

They want to look at your eyes and your ears to see how badly you may have been injured. They want to pick up a word here or a gesture there which, later on, they can relay, magnified, to their own little public. I have always regarded these curious fans in a tolerant, even friendly way.

By the 1990s, superstars such as Michael Jordan could scarcely venture forth in public for fear they would be crushed by the onslaught of fan interest.

The genesis for the American sports hero can be traced back to the the 1920s—often referred to as "The Golden Age of American Sports." The then-largest paying crowd to witness a sports event was for the 1926 Dempsey-Tunney bout in Philadelphia, which was watched by 120,757. Figures like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Knute Rockne, Helen Wills, Bobby Jones, and Jack Dempsey enabled each sport to claim its own titan.

The most towering object of hero worship during the 1920s was aviator Charles Lindbergh. Like sports heroes, Lindbergh performed a colorful feat that received tremendous admiration. "Lindbergh," writes Klapp about the aviator's overnight recognition following his transatlantic flight, "was literally jerked upward in status and in his vertical ascent became almost a demigod." Americans' hero worship of Lindbergh literally set the tone for later fan behavior. A story about Lindbergh in Klapp's study could be in reference to any celebrity of the twentieth century: "A respectable-looking woman of middle age came up to Lindbergh, at dinner in a New York hotel, and tried to look into his mouth to see whether he was eating 'green beans or green peas."'

In a similar fashion, Ruth's home run-hitting feats captured the popular imagination. Prior to Ruth, the game of baseball was played in a methodical fashion, by stringing together a series of singles in order to achieve runs. Ruth's powerful swats ignored the assembly line of singles-hitting by producing runs instantly. "Ruth was like the movie stars of the time who were discovered overnight," noted sports historian Benjamin Rader. "Their seemingly effortless rise to fame and fortune was so unlike the arduous work of a bureaucrat or an assembly line worker."

By the 1920s, the subjects of popular biographies shifted from worshiping "idols of production"—politicians, or captains of indus-try—to the "idols of consumption," or sporting and entertainment heroes. These new heroic tales, writes Mark Dyreson, were "every bit as didactic as a tale about Horatio Alger," that describe the triumphs of heroes "who succeeded against the odds, not simply because they got the breaks, but because of their adherence to the traditional values of perseverance, hard work and clean living."

For decades following the rise of the sports hero, those enshrined in the public spotlight basked in the uncritical admiration of the media and fans alike. It wasn't that the private exploits of such heroes as baseball's Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, basketball's Bill Russell, and football's Jim Brown were exempt from scrutiny; rather, it was that they were judged first and foremost on their public acts, and their private lives remained private. As the century wore on, however, a serious debate about what constitutes a true hero emerged among fans, the media, and athletes. Whereas the heroes of the 1920s were lionized for committing a specific feat that captured the public's imagination, by the 1990s the sports hero was asked to behave as a "role model" whose personal conduct was as important as his or her athletic feats.

Perhaps the figure that best marks this change was New York Yankees great Mickey Mantle. The Oklahoman who broke Ruth's record for home runs in a World Series in 1964 joined the Yankees during the 1950s. This was a decade of conflicting demands for those who were coming of age, writes Michael Anderson: "their best was never good enough. Only by overachieving could they live up to their parents, those grimly stoic survivors of war and want." Mantle—as the old athletic cliche goes—lived hard and played hard, and few faulted him for it. Once he left the game of baseball, Mantle was no longer able to outplay others on the field so he seemed to try to outdrink them. In 1994, Mantle publicly admitted his alcoholism and promptly assumed the role of the socially-responsible role model by imploring others to avoid his mistakes. He also underwent a failed liver transplant and urged others to sign organ donor cards. "I have thought about trying to define what a hero is," wrote Mantle's son David, shortly after his father's death. "Dad was one throughout his baseball career, and a different kind at the end of his life."

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the private lives of all celebrities (even political celebrities) came under increasing scrutiny, it was no longer enough for sports figures to swat a baseball the farthest, or catch a game-winning touchdown pass: they were increasingly sought after to set examples for the young. After sports fans witnessed several player strikes, and watched well-paid athletes land in drug abuse clinics, many yearned for an edenic time when athletes were clean-cut role models. This was a mythic notion: Ruth attained his legendary status alongside his womanizing, and a rather unathletic regimen of beer and hot dogs that showed in his overweight condition. Sociologist Charles Payne in Newsweek sums up this mistaken notion of innocence before the advent of big-money sports: "If you were to go through baseball's or football's Hall of Fame, you're not going to come up with a bunch of choirboys."

Atheletes themselves disagree over their obligation to lead exemplary privates lives. In a 1993 Newsweek article basketball star Charles Barkley, in his typically forthcoming manner, declared "I'm not paid to be a role model. I'm paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court." Karl Malone, another basketball great, openly disagreed with Barkley, stating that "We don't choose to be role models, we are chosen." Fans, devoted as they may be, had become hardened to the complaints of multimillionaire pro athletes. "Funny," objects sports columnist Phil Mushnick, speaking for many fans, "how big shots accept all the trappings of role modeldom—especially the residual commercial cash—before they renounce their broader responsibilities to society."

Although it is true that not every athlete deserves a role model status, critics inflate the debate somewhat by failing to recognize that children have the capacity to distinguish between real-life heroes and daydream ones. As one 12-year-old told Sports Illustrated for Kids, if his sports hero were to "mess up" then "he wouldn't be my favorite player anymore. I would sell all his cards. I have about 65 of them, and I'd give them away." It is possible that the adults are the ones who have changed, and not the kids. An enduring piece of baseball lore describes Shoeless Joe Jackson, a participant in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, passing a young boy in public, who plaintively cries to the fallen hero: "Say it ain't so, Joe!"

Americans learned to look for their heroes' faults, even while they were in the process of exalting them. In 1993 Michael Jordan, who is generally acknowledged as the greatest basketball player ever, was reported to have lost a substantial amount of money from gambling and was subjected to months of media attention and a brief diminishment of his reputation for his strictly legal activities. A few years later, in the midst of 1998's home run record chase, record-setter Mark McGwire was spotted with a legal performance enhancement drug sitting in his locker, prompting one editorial from St. Louis to proclaim: "There probably aren't going to be any heroes anymore. The media won't let us have them." Yet it is the media that has helped create the impossible dilemma that confronts the sports hero. On the one hand they feed athletes on a steady diet of adulation beginning in college and increasing exponentially once they reach a professional level. Told for years that he (and, rarely, she) can do no wrong, the hero is then subjected to equally intense scrutiny aimed at uncovering faults and weaknesses. Wrote a St. Louis paper after McGwire's legal steroid was reported, "In an oftentimes desperate attempt to get the story no one else has, the media look behind closed doors … to come up with something that might taint the reputation of an otherwise unblemished character."

Other instances have caused Americans to examine themselves. In 1994, crowds gathered along a California freeway to witness ex-football star O.J. Simpson engage police in a surreal, televised car chase as a suicidal fugitive. Like fans urging on a self-destructive rock star, the crowd implored O.J. Simpson to run—as if he still carried the football—or made pronouncements like "I can't believe he did it." Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated commented that "it sounded as if half of America lived next door to Simpson."

Not all athletes have a choice about whether to act as a role model or not. Some, by virtue of their gender, race, or ethnicity, have no choice but to perform to higher expectations. Early on, female athletes—like Babe Didrikson, the winner of three track and field medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics—found that their exploits were not viewed with the same legitimacy reserved for their male counterparts. "America has lionized the male athlete to the female athlete's disadvantage," write Lipsyte and Levine; "there is a definite misogynist streak in the sensibility of the big-time locker room and its boys-will-be-boys rationale." By the 1990s, women were still fighting against media images that trivialized female athletic accomplishments. This despite the fact that, in 1991, women outspent men in the purchase of athletic shoes and apparel, and more women participated in sports and fitness than did men. In 1994, athletic shoemaker Nike used an ad depicting a female volleyball player lying on satin sheets in her underwear. CBS Sports, in 1996, suspended a golf commentator for characterizing professional female golfers as lesbians and opined that women with "big boobs" were less able to play the sport. In the absence of serious, authentic portrayals of female athletes, the focus for young girls upon female athletes is more than just upon skill; the female sports hero is also a model who counteracts a broad social stereotype.

Sports heroes have often been used as an avenue for disenfranchised groups to participate in an American life that was otherwise closed to them—politically, economically, or socially. It is hard for late twentieth-century Americans, who take the achievements of African-American athletes for granted, to appreciate Boxer Joe Louis's significance. As Lipsyte and Levine reconstruct it: "Louis was out there representing all black people in those bitter days when most colleges admitted few if any blacks, when college-educated blacks were lucky to get jobs as railroad waiters, when even the Army was segregated." Ethnic athletic heroes bear the similar weight of carrying the hopes of millions. Unlike their parents, second-generation ethnics had the time to devote to leisure and recreation, and sports heroes began serving as important role models.

The best example of a single athlete representing the aspirations of an entire people was Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major league baseball player. On the field, and off, Robinson was subject to racial slurs, hate mail, and death threats; once in Philadelphia, Robinson's Brooklyn Dodger teammates were refused admittance into a hotel because of his presence on the team. Robinson was an integral symbol of the African-American struggle against discrimination in the pre-civil rights era. Robinson's enormous burden is palpable in this 1947 passage by sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, as quoted by Sports Illustrated in 1997:

In the clubhouse Robinson is a stranger. The Dodgers are polite and courteous with him, but it is obvious he is isolated by those with whom he plays… Robinson never is part of the jovial and aimless banter of the locker room. He is the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports.

Sports heroes often say as much about the larger social milieu as they do about themselves: "Independent of their own intentions and beliefs—sometimes even counter to those intentions and beliefs—idols can be coopted to represent both the dominant culture and the concerns and interests of outsiders," write Lypsite and Levine. Every so often, though, a dominant figure emerges in sport to renew the fan's emotional involvement with sports that, according to historian Benjamin Rader, "encourages a kind of primitive solidarity among the population despite our diverse backgrounds. Our society has many forces that pull it apart … (Sports) is a tie that binds."

—Daryl Umberger

Further Reading:

Anderson, Michael. "Like a Colossus." New York Times. April 7,1996, sec. 7, 12.

"Batting Down a Hero." St. Louis Business Journal. August 31,1998, 58.

"Demi-God." Esquire. October 1969, 103-13.

Dyreson, Mark. "The Emergence of Consumer Culture and the Transformation of Physical Culture: American Sport in the 1920s." In Sport in America: From Wicked Amusement to National Obsession, edited by David K. Wiggins. Champaign, Illinois, Human Kinetics, 1995.

Fimrite, Ron. "A Sad Tale of Self-Loathing: Mickey Mantle Was Striving to Exorcise His Personal Demons When Death Intervened." Sports Illustrated. November 11, 1996, 10.

Gelman, David, and Sudarsan Raghavan. "I'm Not a Role Model."Newsweek. June 28, 1993, 56-57.

Izod, John. "Television Sport and the Sacrificial Hero." Journal of Sport and Social Issues. May 1996, 173-93.

Klapp, Orrin E. "Hero Worship in America." American Sociological Review. February 1949, 53-62.

Lipsyte, Robert, and Peter Levine. Idols of the Game: A Sporting History of the American Century. Atlanta, Turner Publishing, 1995.

Lopiano, Donna. "Women Athletes Deserve Respect from the Media." USA Today Magazine. March 1996, 74-76.

Nack, William. "The Breakthrough." Sports Illustrated. May 5,1997, 56-65.

Rader, Benjamin. "The Home Run Mystique Involves the Power of One Dramatic Blast to Pull a People Together." Christian Science Monitor. October 1, 1998, 11.

"Role Models: What Kids and Athletes Say." Sports Illustrated for Kids. September 1995, 26-27.

Verducci, Tom. "The Hero Trap." Sports Illustrated. July 11,1994, 88.

William, Peter. Sports Immortals: Deifying the American Athlete. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.