There was a time, I must confess, when the wide-eyed wonder and freshly scrubbed innocence of youth directed me to the misguided notion that professional athletes, much like movie and singing stars, were, by default, role models.
Larger-than-life, almost mythical creatures, it was not unreasonable to place them on a pedestal, from which they did not look down upon us mere mortals as much as we looked up to them.
Among my heroines was Wilma Rudolph, the sleek African-American sprinter whose long, lean legs and gazelle-like elegance on the track was surpassed only by the quiet grace, regal bearing and championing of civil rights that framed the afterglow of a running career that included three Olympic Games gold medals in Rome 1960. She fascinated me. Inspired me. I thought her then to be—and still do more than 20 years after a brain tumor took her away—a wonderful role model.
I harbored similar admiration for Floyd Patterson, a gentle gladiator who, given his shy, soft-speaking, almost apologetic demeanor, was miscast more so than any other man whose name appears in the lengthy lineage of world heavyweight fist fighting champions.
I was just three days beyond my sixth birthday when Patterson won his boxing title for the first time, and I remember nothing of it. I was 11 when he lost it for the second and final time, at the cruel, crushing hands of Charles (Sonny) Liston, and I reflect upon that occasion as the undoing of my misplaced mythology of the athlete as other-worldly.
Sonny Liston could not be my role model. I failed to see how he possibly could be any kid’s role model. An unsmiling, menacing thug prone to egregious acts of violence in and out of the ring, he had a rap sheet as long as a Winnipeg winter and ties to the Mafia. He was behind bars the day I was born.
I recollect the adults speaking of Liston, the men in loud, combustible expressions of reverence and/or vilification, the women in whispers companioned by looks of horror upon a sighting of the great beast. No parent with so much as a smattering of sense for acceptable civility dare turn to a child and say, “Dear, I want you to grow up to be just like that man Sonny Liston.”
“Colored people say they don’t want their children to look up to me,” he told James Baldwin in a superbly sculpted piece in the February 1963 issue of Nugget. “Well, they ain’t teaching their children to look up to Martin Luther King, either. I wouldn’t be no bad example if I was up there. I could tell a lot of those children what they need to know—because—I passed that way. I could make them listen.”
Liston, of course, was not the first bad actor in boxing, nor has he been the last. History records that there always has existed saints and sinners across the sports landscape, although today dalliances with the devil appear to far outdistance the trespasses of yore.
It therefore seems to me that the default position of role model vis-a-vis our athletes is a bit of a fool’s play that ought not be automatically applied. It is, after all, one thing to hope sportswomen and men wrap themselves in the garments of prim and proper, but to expect it is to expect toxic levels of disappointment.
An example would be Tyson Fury, freshly minted king of the ring. An oafish, seemingly spoof-like lad with a galloping gob, few lent an ear to his reckless ramblings a month ago, but since his plunder now includes the heavyweight boxing crown, which he purloined from reigning titleholder Wladimir Klitschko on this weekend past, people are paying attention with ears wide open. And certain of his spewings, such as his dim view on homosexuality, are rather rancid.
Thus, certain of the rabble demand that he conduct himself in the manner of a respectful role model. Well, good luck with that.
“You don’t like it, change the station,” Fury says with matter-of-fact defiance. “It’s none of my concern what other people think or what other people want me to say.”
It is not unwise to place our sporting heroes on a pedestal because they might fall, or be knocked off. It is unwise to do so because they are, first and foremost, human beings with the same frailities and flaws as us mere mortals. They might be better than us on the scoreboard, but they are not better than us at life.