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Why Athletes Become Heroes

Why Athletes Become Heroes

Mediocre. That is how I would describe my athletic prowess as a child.

But that didn’t prevent me from wanting to play in the majors. I started playing baseball at age six, and my dad coached our team for five or six years. I cherished the time we got to spend together, but baseball wasn’t the only sport we enjoyed—we watched all of them.

As a child of the 90s, I grew up in an era of legends. Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ozzie Smith, and who could forget Michael Jordan? When it came to Jordan, I was no different than any other kid; I wanted to be just like him. For my sixth birthday, my parents gave me a Space Jam-themed bedroom—complete with bedspread, posters, and a Toon Squad jersey. I even slept with a stuffed Bugs Bunny and a Michael action figure that quoted his lines from the movie. It’s safe to say that I idolized this man. (The evidence is still hanging in my mom’s basement.) But why?

At 26, I’ve garnered a more objective understanding of MJ. I’ve seen some of his less-desirable traits. From the gambling to stories of his insults to other players, I now know that Michael has his faults. Don’t get me wrong—I still subscribe to the statement that he is the “greatest of all time.” But I do so through a nuanced lens. And it turns out I’m not bothered by his flaws—I find them relatable. To be honest, my desire to be “like Mike” was a lot of pressure, and seeing him as a fallible person is comforting.

My shift in perspective on Michael Jordan makes me wonder: what is it about sports that creates these behemoth stars? Why are we as a culture so willing to give them our attention? And what do we expect them to give us in return?

I don’t think we need to look any farther than the highlight videos that precede every Olympic event, every World Series, every Super Bowl. These videos give us a glimpse of the moments we can’t forget, or show the obstacles the athletes overcame to play on this stage, now. From a storytelling perspective, this is a genius way to get the fans invested in what they are about to watch. Ultimately, it serves as a reminder that these larger-than-life figures represent qualities we want to see in ourselves—qualities like perseverance, discipline, grit, and fortitude. In most cases, they even represent the “American Dream”—each athlete started with a goal and each of them worked hard to make that goal materialize.

We eat this stuff up, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These individuals inspire us, and in exchange we buy their jerseys and come to their games and decorate our rooms with their likenesses.

But amid all the hype, all the cheering, all the fanfare, is it possible we lose sight of the thing that made us adore them in the first place? At our core, we are fans because we relate to these athletes on a fundamental level. They remind us of our own potential. They are often from neighborhoods that look like our own. Their parents worked jobs in factories and hospitals just like ours. They are a part of our culture. They speak our language. They are human.

The other week I read article after article, and saw segment after segment, about players in the NFL taking a knee in protest of the American justice system. I won’t get into my personal beliefs about the protests, but I feel it’s important to call into question much of the public outcry since those protests took place.

This goes back to a question I posed earlier: what do we expect athletes to give us in return for our adulation? After all, we’re very invested in their work. In some cases, we’re even shareholders in the organizations for which they play (I’m looking at you, Green Bay). Shouldn’t these players be grateful for our support, shut up, and do the thing that we pay them to do?

I would argue, no. Because in the beginning, before they won a Heisman, or were a spokesperson for Nike, they were people—people we related to and people we respected. And while they’re public figures now, they aren’t owned by the public. It strikes me as rather reprehensible to reduce these individuals to what they are capable of on the field or the court.

Above all, they are humans first. That’s important to remember. If we don’t, I believe something dangerous starts to happen: we start to view these athletes as a commodity in a way that looks eerily similar to our nation’s checkered past. And most of us don’t care to relive that.

In the same vein, if we remember that these athletes are humans who we championed because of their perseverance, discipline, grit, and fortitude, this changes the way we view their protest. We really can’t view them any differently than the humans we have relationships with and encounter daily who don’t share our ideological views. When we disagree with these people, we don’t feel the need to hurl profane epithets at them. If the relationship is worth anything to us, we do something completely different. We listen.

When we commodify sports heroes, we tend to be more fickle and more easily outraged. But maybe it’s not too late to be legendary in our own right. We have an opportunity to see people as people. This won’t be easy. We will have to deny ourselves the option of jumping to conclusions. That will require discipline. We will have to listen well enough to see where another person is coming from, to see their intent. This will take fortitude. And we will have to commit to living this way all the time. This looks like perseverance. Because ultimately, not unlike the athletes that we looked up to in our youth, we will not be judged by the times we did the easy things, but the moments that we rose to the occasion and successfully navigated the hard ones.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on sports from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Jon Christopher
To put it frankly, Jon is a conversationalist. With a penchant for forging relationships, watching movies and playing board games, he will find something to discuss with anyone. He also enjoys keeping it light and hanging out with his beautiful wife, Danielle.

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