Recent revelations about Joe DiMaggio’s conduct while doing PR work for the military during World War II shocked some people who had been humming “Mrs. Robinson” over the years. Joe, as insiders had long maintained, really was a selfish and anti-social guy, far from the knight in shining armor that the public took him to be. But he played his hero role well when he was in the public eye, and that is to his credit: DiMaggio met his obligation as a hero-for-hire. Athletic heroes are challenged to live up to their on-field character, and not surprisingly, few are equal to the task. One who was has been back in the news lately: Stan (the Man) Musial, the St. Louis baseball great who will soon be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
In these anxious times when every institution and every champion seems to betray us eventually, sports heroes who can remain untarnished are especially valuable, which is one reason why they earn so much money. On the field, court, course, ring or track, they can exhibit courage, trustworthiness, selflessness, leadership, sacrifice, diligence, loyalty, fair play and sportsmanship to inspire us and serve as role models for our children. All they have to do is avoid showing that it is all an illusion after the games are over. It shouldn’t be difficult, yet it is.
Tiger Woods only needed to be a responsible and trustworthy husband and father. LeBron James only had to avoid revealing himself as a fame-obsessed child. Derek Jeter only had to resist the impulse to extort the team he symbolized for money he neither deserved or needed. Yet they couldn’t, or wouldn’t do it. They hurt their own images, reputation and legacy beyond repair, but more important, they robbed us of heroes that we sorely need.
The latest addition to the pantheon of fallen idols is Bret Favre, the star NFL quarterback now suffering through the humiliating final season that was more or less guaranteed by his inability to retire while he could still pick up a football. First his arrested emotional development—admittedly an occupational hazard— caught up with him in the form of a sex scandal: Favre “sexted” a female reporter, and maybe more than one. Then age and injuries caught up with him, and he began stinking up the stadium, in part because he selfishly insisted on playing through injuries to keep a personal streak alive at the expense of his team’s competitiveness. Other greats in his and other sports have handled the sudden erosion of their skills with grace by retiring mid-season, an act that requires self-awareness, respect for team members, fans and the game, and a willingness to waive contract dollars. Favre’s response, as acidly described by Sally Jenkins in a Washington Post column today, has been to reject the #1 and #2 obligations of a leader: responsibility and accountability.
“In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 31-3 beating by the Green Bay Packers, Favre’s teammates, Ryan Longwell and Steve Hutchinson, tried to comfort him. Afterward, Favre’s self-absorption reached its zenith. He actually insinuated that they helped get him into this mess, by visiting Mississippi and talking him into playing again against his better judgment. “They just came over and said, ‘Keep your head up. I know it’s not what we envisioned when we were at your place,’ ” Favre said. “But I’m not going to say, ‘I told you guys,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have come back.’ I’m here. We’re in this thing together.”
Favre has embarrassed his team and league, ruined the Vikings’ season, and gotten his coach fired, and refuses to accept responsibility for any of it. Despite his remarkable career, he has irrevocably destroyed his status as a hero by displaying his dearth of character and values in his final season. Bret, meet Derek, LeBron and Tiger. You have something in common.
Hero status is always based on idealization and illusion. Nobody—not George Washington, not Davy Crockett, not Audie Murphy, not even Stan the Man—is a hero all the time. Because we need our illusions and our heroes to keep us striving to be better than we are, those who acquire hero status and its inevitable benefits have an obligation to try to keep the illusion intact.
They are a scarce resource, becoming scarcer all the time.