Bret Favre, Meet Derek, LeBron, and Tiger

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.

Jenkins writes:

“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.

4 thoughts on “Bret Favre, Meet Derek, LeBron, and Tiger

  1. Sometimes we just have to wait awhile, say, a couple of generations . . . ?Today’s instant overblown media heroes constructed out of Wheaties cardboard haven’t (yet) proved themselves worthy of anything but physical skills and even a heroic act that may prove — to put it kindly — uncharacteristic.

    Here are a few baseballers still standing tall on my icon shelf (in no particular order): Peewee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Jackie Robinson, Willy Mays, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Roy Campanella, Ichiro Suzuki, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente and, just to stir the pot, the maybe-actually-but-not-legally-innocent Shoeless Joe Jackson.

    Go ahead, knock ’em down! I can take it! (in other words, you can’t really disappoint a true sceptic)

    • Say it ain’t so, Penn…Shoeless Joe’s only defenses are the rationalizations “I deserve this” (the money Cominsky was cheating the 8 out of), “I cheated the cheaters too” (for—supposedly—actually playing his best while taking the money anyway); “They had it coming”/ “My victim is a bad guy” (Cominsky again), “everybody does it”, as fixing games was pretty common then, and mostly “I’m too stupid to be bad.” Remind me (I’ve got a Macy’s parade to catch on TV, and I’ll send you the file of my article for the Hardball Times about character and baseball.

      Happy Thanksgiving! If you cook it, they will come.

  2. History does have a way of evening the score: today’s flashes in the pan won’t be remembered, except perhaps for their foibles, felonies, bad taste, unethical behavior, etc., for more than a generation.

    For truly historical figures, it is tougher. Take the whole man or woman, put him or her in the context of the age in which they lived, and try to measure the good they did against the bad they did as well. Not an easy job, as any historian or biographer will tell you.

    It is most distressing that today’s “instant heroes” (or instant miscreants) get the attention they do. Reason in my opinion? Today’s Americans are so ignorant of anything that is outside of pop culture, sports, etc., that the only way to try to discuss such an issue is by using examples of people getting their 15 minutes of fame… it’s all they can relate to. So Hmph.

  3. Aw, how did I know Joe would get your attention? (it’s hard to let go of the standard-bearers of one’s youth; I suppose the Rosenberg’s … maybe we’d better not get into that…)

    There seems to be an awful lot of hearsay and news-myth around the Barefoot Baller so, out of respect to you and the ethics-goddess, I have been researching what fact there be. The following example:
    [Contemporary news accounts contend that Jackson told the grand jury:
    “ When a Cincinnati player would bat a ball out in my territory I’d muff it if I could — that is, fail to catch it. But if it would look too much like crooked work to do that I’d be slow and make a throw to the infield that would be short. My work netted the Cincinnati team several runs that they never would have had if we had been playing on the square. ”
    No such direct quote or testimony to this effect appears in the actual stenographic record of Jackson’s grand jury appearance.]

    The grand jury testimony is available as a downloadable pdf at http://www.blackbetsy.com/jjtestimony1920.pdf%5D

    Also according to that testimony and attested to ever after by his seven teammates, Joe was never in on the fix. And there seems to be much more back up concerning his non-involvement in Dennis Purdy’s The Team-by-Team Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball.

    But as you say, even if he is pardon-the-expression lily-white in the legal sense, by the admissions you quote above and attitude thus revealed, he does not live up to the standards of ethical behavior.

    Thus, tomorrow I shall remove his autographed $25,000 baseball from my safe and toss it in the Bay.

    I think it’s against cultural law to talk baseball on Thanksgiving Day, anyway.

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