mark mcgwire

21st Century Idolatry

In 2130 BCE, it is said that Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka’ba in Mecca. The depth and tone of the stone’s black coloring stood out in the city, and soon it became a place of worship. It was not the Ka’ba that was being worshiped, though it certainly looked the part, but rather idols within the Ka’ba that made for a sanctuary for Christian, pagan, or otherwise. The holy ground became a place of peace, the cornerstone of a peaceful city where war was not allowed and an asabiyya (social cohesion) flourished in the area.

As Muhammad began his mission in 610 CE, the Ka’ba still stood, a place of worship of idols, through perhaps less serene than it had been in the times of Abraham and Ishmael. The Qur’an forbade worshipping false idols and he strove to change the ways of the Ka’ba. He had the idols burned, the Ka’ba renovated, and it still stands today as the object Muslims face during prayer. Of course they do not pray to the Ka’ba, it is simply the direction they face, much as the tabernacle in a church faces east. But the idols burned, and a religion spread that has filled the hearts of millions with wonder ever since.

No, the blog has not turned its sights on religious history. Just making a point.

Today, Lance Armstrong gave up his fight with the USADA and will not contest doping allegations. Cancer survivor, national hero, ambassador and fundraiser for cancer research and by all accounts (excluding Sheryl Crow’s) a very good man. He was also a cheater. This does not make him any less a man in the sense that he is still a cancer survivor, national hero and so on. However, it appears that he did not earn those Tour de France titles fairly. He was surely still in better shape than I will ever be, but he broke the rules. His legacy as an athlete is not just tainted, but irrevocably damaged. Frankly, I don’t know if anyone really cares. We know why we embraced Lance, and we don’t particularly care that we never would have embraced him if he had not won the Tour 7 times. By no means is he ruined as a man because he cheated in sport.

The same sort of thing happened with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ray Lewis, Roger Clemens, Michael Vick and so on. We looked on in wonder at what they could do on the field. We idolized their superhuman talent and we (speaking for my generation here) wanted to be them. Bonds is now seen as a pariah who now takes bike rides in his slimmed down form. McGwire was publicly shamed. Sosa has disappeared completely, particularly after trying to look a little creamier. Ray Lewis was accused of killing a man. Clemens won his case but ended a pariah anyway and not someone any kid wants to be. Vick is perhaps the most interesting case here since his rehabilitation has recast him as an animal rights activist and, once again, a tremendous athlete.

This situation is hardly a new one. Think OJ, think Daryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden. Think Mickey Mantle’s alcoholism, drug use and philandering. Ty Cobb was a huge asshole. None of this strikes us as surprising at all since we know these stories, but in the days of Mantle, kids looked on in wonder wanted to be the Mick, have Monroe (a drug abuser and delinquent herself despite they way she rocked a dress) on their arm, and be the epitome of cool and a pro athlete.

Things have changed, at least a little bit. NBA players have become so freakishly athletic that while kids still grow up wanting to drain a 3 like Kobe, swat shots like Dwight or do everything like LeBron, there is a definite disconnect by the time they are 10 that they will never be 6’8″ and a freak athlete. That love of basketball may still remain, but the idol is at least somewhat dead. The co-founder of this blog “6’1, not an Adonis) serves as a bit of a counter-example as he still holds Vince Carter as an idol to this day despite not being able to dunk, but his basketball fanaticism is exceptional, not the rule. The steroids cloud has made it really, really hard to stick with a baseball idol, though Mike Trout and others certainly give hope to a new generation. The NFL is a bit different since no one cares if guys are jacked up, as long as they go out there and risk their future health every Sunday.

So where am I going with this? Nothing is new here about sports figures being real, flawed people. I think we all realize at some point that our heroes are men, and not characters from comic books. But in an information age like ours, will kids have any sports figures to look up to? Is that innocent hope that he/she can grow up and be superhuman gone? If so, is that a bad thing? Do we really want our kids idolizing a ballplayer of any kind when that ballplayer does so little good for the world? Are we that jaded/enlightened/cynical now?

There isn’t really an “answer” to these questions. There are certainly valid opinions on both sides. Maybe it is just a bad year for sports figures and the Joe Paternos of the world will fade into the background as new heroes step forth without issue. All I know is that some day, maybe soon, maybe in decades, we will set fire to the idols in the Ka’ba, hopefully to much rejoicing and rebirth, but almost as surely with a deep sadness that the innocence of sports and athletes is dead. Lance Armstrong was Harvey Dent, except he didn’t try to kill anyone’s son. We saw him as the best of us, a man whose herculean physical strength was matched by an unbreakable will. But he also cheated. Both sides of him are there for all to see. I do not think the sports idol is dead, but I think he is mortal, and some day we will see him/her in flames.

Do we? Should we?