The Death of the American Sports Hero

The generation before mine knows exactly where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot.  The media tells me I should remember where I was when Princess Di…um, died.  I’ll never forget where I was when Michael Jordan announced his [first] comeback.  It was by fax.

In what would seem minimalist even by today’s 140-characters-or-less age, MJ sent a fax to the press that read, simply, “I’m back.” (That’s 9 characters, by the way.)  It took 9 characters for the city of Chicago, as I remember it, to go ape-shit.  Cars veered over to the sides of the roads.  Total strangers danced and high-fived each other in the streets like MJ’s fax had just slain the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.  The news interrupted whatever the hell eleven-year old me was watching that day (Probably X-Men but possibly a rerun of Small Wonder.  Fox had this weird Saturday morning lineup that went from pretty great cartoons to American Gladiators to reruns of Family Ties, Small Wonder, and Mr. Belvedere.)  My mother worked Saturdays (She worked every day that ends in a “Y.”), and my brother was at his ice skating class, which left me home alone.  When my father and brother came home, we each oozed with the excitement that only comes on Christmas morning or when Daniel-san got into crane position. (No, wait, I was definitely watching NBC’s tween lineup of Saved by the Bell, California Dreams, and Hang Time.)  What’s intrigued me about that moment as I’ve looked back at it over the years, is that at the time Jordan 9-charactered his way back into the world spotlight, I wasn’t a sports fan.  I couldn’t have told you how many players it takes to field a football team or even what the Bulls’ record had been up to that point that year. So why was the news of Jordan’s triumphant return exciting to me?

Because he was my hero.

Not to get all Andy Rooney, but in my day (I cannot believe I just used those words), there was an air of mystery(even mythology) surrounding our sports heroes.  Of them all, Jordan was the most untouchable.  Simply put, you never believed the Bulls were going to lose so long as MJ was lacing up Nikes.  But it went deeper than that.  As a child, I can’t remember anyone reporting on Jordan’s mammoth gambling addiction.  I don’t recall a single printed word devoted to unearthing his extra-marital affairs.  In fact, the only things we were ever told about MJ just served to reinforce his legend.  He physically scrapped with players who weren’t giving it their all in practice.  He practiced longer hours and pushed himself harder than anyone.  Ever.  He loved his father and his wife and his kids.  For Chicagoans at least, Michael was as close to Superman as you could experience in reality. (The man could fly for Christ’s sake!)  And that’s how we felt.  We had a super-human fighting on our side.  Your side was just going to have to accept losing to the Best That Ever Did It.  I suspect the kids in New York felt similarly about Patrick  Ewing, just as the Hoosier Youth felt about Reggie Miller.

But that era’s over now.

Now, even the kids (Read: “tweens.” Kids younger than 10 still consider cartoon characters to be role models.  Stupid kids.) know that Kobe is an alleged rapist, that Manny Ramirez is a head case, and that T.O. is a douche bag.  They know that LeBron choked in the Finals, that Michael Vick just got out of prison, and that every great power hitter since they were born is most likely juicing.  And how do they know this?  Because the information is being fed to them literally every second they flip on one of the dozen or so ESPNs (remember when the idea of ESPN 8, or, “The Ocho” was a punchline in Dodgeball?).  The 24 hour news cycle has killed the Sports Hero as we used to know it.

Don’t believe me? Quick, let’s play some word association.  Barry Bonds.  Tiger Woods.  Brett Favre.  Lance Armstrong.  In order, I’m willing to bet your answers went something very close to “Steroids, Hoes in Different Area Codes, Sexting, Doping.”  To be fair, two of these transgressions aren’t even against the law, they’re just instances of general douchebaggery.  To take it one step further, I’m not saying  MJ wasn’t guilty of one (or all- yes, even the steroids) of these offenses, just that there wasn’t the same coverage of it.  Oddly enough, the 24-hour news cycle as it stands today owes itself to the grandaddy of sports hero-turned-word association experiments: O.J. Simpson. (Pre-1995, your answer would have been either “Heisman”, “Hall of Fame”, or “Naked Gun.”)

The irony of it is, had MJ come along today he wouldn’t have grabbed the national spotlight in the same way he did because he’d be everywhere.  There’s a certain saturation point that’s just right, and then there’s the “Why is Michael Cera in every movie about a scraggily guy?” over-saturation point.  Jordan would be the nightly lead on Sportscenter for his gambling exploits in Vegas during the regular season, he and his mistresses would be plastered all over the tabloid racks in supermarkets, and he’d still be the world’s greatest pitchman (Also, sadly, Space Jam still happens in this alternate universe, but it stars Spongebob).  We even started to see glimpses of what MJ in the internet age would look like with his mistresses extorting him and his $168 million divorce settlement.  Long story short, Jordan is lucky he came along just before the era.

It’s sort of like the Presidency.  Did Abraham Lincoln bang an intern in the Himself Bedroom?  Maybe.  Would said intern have been able to tweet about it later? Doubtful, unless she owned a DeLorean.  We used to be satisfied building up our heroes.  Now the process isn’t complete until we’ve torn them down.  (Maybe this is why sports movies suck nowadays.  They all follow the Rocky paradigm when they should be following Goodfellas.)

I suppose the bright side to all of this is that we love a redemption story even more than the fallen hero story.  If LeBron, say, loses Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to injuries for a season, and manages to win the title by putting the Juwan Howard All-Stars on his back and carrying them there, all will be forgiven.  Likewise, should Michael Vick run into a burning kennel and mouth-to-mouth a labradoodle back to life, no one will remember him as the Heinrich Himmler of the canine community.  But, we may still have to suffer something along the lines of a “man CPRin dogz like crazy n ths b” tweet flashing across ESPN 12’s crawl at the bottom of the screen.  It’s no “I’m back,” but then again, that was a different Michael.

6 thoughts on “The Death of the American Sports Hero

  1. Well written sir. Some questions:
    1. Your blog implies that you don’t approve of today’s knee-jerk news on twitter, facebook, and TV conglomerate channel mounting (ESPN 1 thru whatever). So, are you saying that you prefer a world without this informational clutter so as to preserve our image of heroes? Is it a case of ignorance is bliss?

    2. Is it possible that news organizations reported on MJ the same way they report on today’s stars, but to a lesser magnitude (having been without fb and twitter)? And, more importantly, if they were, is it possible that our generation just didn’t watch sports coverage when we were kids, which allowed us to protect the image of our heroes? I don’t know any 8 year olds today. Do 8 and 9 year olds watch ESPN 2? What’s their relationship with fb and twitter?

    In a nutshell, what I’m asking with this last one in this: In comparing the two generations, is it possible that the news coverage has always been more or less the same, but our worlds were protected when we were 8-10? And, is it possible that kids today do have heroes because their world is also protected, despite the clutter? Is our generation disgruntled because we’re now at an age of full awareness, totally thrust into the real world where heroes don’t exist? To cope, are we reaching back nostalgically to the halcyon days of MJ, when in all reality, those days are very similar to today?

    Not sure if that made any sense. But great topic…look forward to the next one.

    • 1. I don’t approve of the 24 hour news cycle at all, the least of which’s application is sports. I don’t mind investigative reporting. I do mind when Pedro Gomez is charged with setting up camp in Mississippi for 6 weeks in case Brett Favre throws a fly route to a 6th grader at the school.

      2. It is not possible that the news treated MJ as all sports stars are treated today, even when accounting for the lack of twitter or the web. I make a distinction between kids and tweens in my post. I mean to say those 10 years of age or older when I say “kids.”

  2. I believe MJ was spared media scrutiny because individual reporters were afraid they would lose access to MJ if they made his transgressions public.

    Kobe Bryant’s rape case is different because the victim came forward and the media was obliged to do it’s job. Same with Tiger Woods.

    The media has become a partner with professional sports and are no longer independent. The role of the media is to provide positive coverage to keep the fans coming to the stadium. And maybe fans don’t want to know the truth about their wealthy heroes anyway.

    • Your last two statements exist in direct conflict with each other. If sports media is nothing more than positive coverage machine designed to keep fans in the seats, why dwell on the negative as they do? They could devote the final 20 minutes of every Sportscenter as a sports police blotter. I think the media, and especially televised media, exists to draw fans away from the live games. What does ESPN get from you going to the Sunday night baseball game they’re airing? Even locally, does Chicago’s channel 5 really want you to see the Bears play the Packers live on a Sunday night rather than tune in to WMAQ and watch it on tv?

      • I guess it’s because I only watch local coverage. I could never imagine any local reporter doing a negative story on MJ during the glory years and I don’t believe that ever happened.

        Since it was late…let me rephrase. ” The role of the media is to provide coverage to keep the fans interested and sell ads.”

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