The One In Which I Scold Us For Making Athletes Into Heroes

I have been obsessed with the way we look at athletes for the past couple of years.  We have a constant stream of stories that tell us the athletes we have virtually deified are nothing more than humans.  They are on the far genetic end of what a human body is physically capable of achieving, but they are merely humans.

Why do we feel the need to elevate them so much?  Is it something we as a public needs or is it something the “television partners” of these sports need to get non-sports fans to watch?  As always I vote for both.

Pure sports fans hate NBC’s Olympic coverage.   From their point of view, they have invested so much money in the Olympics, in order to receive any return on investment they have to treat the Olympics as some kind of giant entertainment vehicle that features American athletes and a few people from other countries.  They make it almost into professional wrestling with all the talking and narrative and so little actual sports.  Apparently, the drama created by actual sports where you have actual winners and losers and participants who will never compete at this level again isn’t appealing enough to housewives or whomever NBC imagines they are trying to get to watch.

The advent of 24 hours sports channels has created a demand of constant sports programming that can’t be satiated by sports alone.  You can only show so many games and talk about them for so long before everyone gets bored.  This time is often filled by talking about someone’s dramatic journey from the valley to the pinnacle and how wonderful they are.

The 30 For 30 franchise has done so much to elevate the sports documentary that you can and often do forget that they are in anyway about sports.  Besides the brilliant Two Escobars, Once Brothers, or Without Bias, you get these little gems of Run Ricky Run or The Best That Never Was.  Then the NFL Network’s A Football Life does the same thing by following the lives of interesting people in the football realm.  However, these are special cases and not everything has that much quality behind it.  See ESPN’s continuing coverage of the Tim Tebow Saga.

The one story Americans love is the rise-fall-rise story.  F. Scott was wrong.  There are second acts in American life.  The public demands it and eats it up like pizza at a college party.  That is the conceit behind a lot of the sports documentaries you see about individuals.  This person achieved a great deal of success, they lost it all, and then they fought to get it all back.  The narrative basically writes itself.

To me the need for the fall in these stories is the more interesting part.  We build them up because we need heroes.  We need people to look up to and because they are rich and on television, they are the ones we elevate.  The problem is that our sports heroes are more like The Watchmen and less like The Justice League.  Our heroes are flawed humans who have special talents that set them apart.

Sports fans concentrate on the things that make them special and ignore the things that make them human making them into modern day demi-gods sometimes until it is too late.  In our minds their reflective glow makes us feel better and forget about the mortgage that is due at the end of the week.  Then we see them in handcuffs and are reminded that they are more like us then gods.

However, why do we search out these human flaws and ridicule them for them?  I guess the question I’m asking is why do we care so much about whether these people are good human beings and why are we still surprised when they are not?  They can’t be life sized action figures that come out and perform for us and then go back into their box when the game is over and be human heroes.  We need to stop asking our athletes to be more then flawed humans.  We will all be better off and happier.

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