Mommy, Where are the Heroes?

Jeff Greenfield got it right on The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric when he said July 24, 2007 may go down as “Black Tuesday” in the world of sports.

The National Basketball Association was consumed with a gambling scandal involving a referee, the National Football League's highest paid player was facing indictment, a steroid suspect was on the cusp of breaking baseball's most hallowed record, and a leading rider dropped out of bicycling's biggest race after testing positive for drugs. 

Greenfield pulled it all together in his analysis on the July 24 broadcast:

“Just hours after NBA Commissioner Stern was confronting the worst threat to his league's integrity... the Atlanta Falcons owner was talking about the future of Michael Vick, his franchise quarterback, indicted in the dog fighting scandal that could cost him his career and freedom. That took place just hours after one of the leading competitors in the Tour de France, Alexandre Vinokourov, quit after being tested positive for blood doping, and tonight San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds begins his final assault on Hank Aaron's career home run record surrounded by a cloud of suspicion involving everything from steroid use to tax evasion. It is as if sports, an arena where fans escape the tribulations of the real world, has instead become just another troubled realm.”

Indeed it was a day, as ABC World News anchor Charles Gibson put it, “The sports page makes the front page.”  He continued, “And at issue is the very integrity of sport.”

Integrity of sport, yes, but of much more, too.  Sports are a vital part of the fabric of American culture, and sports stars are icons.  Kids clamor for autographs of their heroes, dream of making it in the “bigs,” and adorn their rooms with posters of multi-million dollar athletes who are just so …cool! 

Then on one day, in a perfect storm of sport-related controversy, America gets a gut check.  Those icons of integrity and personal responsibility, The Referee, The Quarterback, the Slugger turn out to be less than what we hoped.  And parents find themselves explaining to their 10-year-old sons words like “indictment,” “fixing games,” “doping” and more.  They look into the teary eyes of those boys who idolize sports figures and listen to the cry, “But he was my hero!”

NBA all-star Charles Barkley once famously said “I'm not a role model.”  He was wrong.  Willingly or not, star athletes serve as role models for our children.  Professional sports leagues have a moral obligation to make sure their players set the right kind of example.  When athletes cross the line they should be kicked out of sports, so they won't lead kids astray. 

The NFL has started well this year by suspending Pacman Jones for the season.  Now it's time to send Michael Vick to the showers.

Barkley also said “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids.”  He's right about that.  Perhaps it's time for parents to refocus the spotlight on the everyday heroes who don't have shoe deals or multi-million-dollar contracts.  The Army Grunt.  The Teacher.  The Firefighter.  The Nurse.  The Cancer Survivor.  The Volunteer.  The list of real heroes is endless.  We just need to look harder to find them.  They don't show up on TV too often.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.