The Role of the Athlete in US Culture

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 90’s during a tumultuous time.  The US waged a war, dropped bombs around the world, and we Americans witnessed unspeakable acts of domestic terrorism.  But that was all of secondary importance, especially in Chicago.  Indeed, only a god would stand a chance against this man in an opinion poll, and God might come in second, for our imaginations and our hearts belonged to Michael “Air” Jordan. 

On the court there was nothing he couldn’t do: five-time MVP; six-time NBA Finals MVP; two-time Gold Medalist, 14-time all-star; 10-time scoring champion; etc.  There was nothing he couldn’t sell.  MJ was the most recognizable face in the world.  He’s the reason Nike became THE shoe company and why McDonald’s swept into every major city in the world.  Gatorade tempted us to “Be Like Mike” and Hanes promised us the MJ comfort.  He was a family man in a happy marriage, a role model for millions of kids (myself included), and even starred in a major Hollywood film.  He also took a year to play baseball in the White Sox organization.  How lucky could a young pale hose fan like me be?  The greatest athlete in the world expanding his domination to another sport and doing it with MY team, and MY sport!  It was perfect.

Outside of his career as the greatest player/marketer on the globe, a different story of Michael Jordan was being written—a story meant to be told after his marketing potential had peaked.  Rumors alleged that MJ’s first retirement, and perhaps his father’s murder, were related to his gambling addiction. The shine on his career tarnished as other stories surfaced of Jordan turning his team against the front office and publicly deriding the general manager.  He came to be seen not just as the great competitor, but also oftentimes petty.  When Juanita Jordan divorced Michael in 2006, stories aired of his infidelity and lack of presence in his son’s life.  As he stepped into the front office of his own NBA team in Charlotte, the media routinely berated his ability to work with others.  His role as a beacon of human perfection was forever tarnished.

Our country has a way of forgetting these indiscretions—for a time anyway.  We hold athletes in a revered status reserved for few others.  They make no policy or law and make no contributions to the growth of our collective knowledge; they have no duty to protect our safety, teach our children, or serve our nation.  Athletes play games.  They play games better than most people in the world.  They were born with more flexible tendons in their arms, faster quick-twitch muscles, sociopathic commitment to being the best, or simply higher thresholds for pain.

For centuries man has held these game-players as the pinnacle of our species.  Perhaps they stand as a symbol of our evolution; their physical prowess unleashes our imaginations about what we could be, as Darwinian proof that all things evolve to be better suited for their environment.

But athletes are also created with marketing campaigns.  They are charged with being role models to our youth as well as perfect physical specimens.  And if a golfer should break this un-written rule of personal perfection, he is lambasted and shunned.  The nation is slightly more forgiving if you’re accused of rape, though.  Win a few championships and all is forgiven.  Sports are multi-billion dollar organizations with more influence on public opinion than the largest Super-Pacs.  The men (and in a few cases women) of pro sports have made millions from our ticket stubs, paid for with our hard earned money.  We expect in return to hold them to moral standards too great for any man or messiah.  Many of us live and die by these men’s movements.  Cheers and praise follow success, booing and occasional rioting in response to failure.  Yet at the end of the game, our gladiatorial heroes take off their jerseys, and like us, are mere mortals with faults, imperfections, and dark sides. 

Sport, like money, is a creation of man.  While meant as leisure, it has been perverted into a religion.  I choked up when Jordan retired with more money than the archdiocese of Chicago.  As a child of seven, I cried when my center fielder was traded to my north-side rival.  On October 26, 2005, despite two on-going wars, an economy teetering on the brink, an education system in shambles, and unemployment on the rise, I popped champagne to celebrate, as if world peace had just been declared, the first White Sox World Series Championship in my lifetime and the first in 86 years.

We love to feel a part of something, to share in the great achievements of others, while marketers love to capitalize on us.  It’s not wrong to cheer, care, or even be inspired by sports, but it is important to consider perspective—and to make room on the Wheaties box for the guy who proved the existence of the Higgs Boson.

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