Once upon a time, sports were a metaphor for the strength of the human spirit; the tenuous connection between human and myth brought to life (when the cameras rolled, in the modern age). The hero’s journey begins in obscurity, and it is the rise to fame—to prestige—that comes to define how we see them; it is in actions tempered by adversity and the opposing forces in their lives, on and off the field.
We have lived long enough to see the death of the sports hero.
No longer is the player who puts on the bold colors of a hometown team a hero, but rather a clever con to the average sports fan. Cynicism aside, where do we go from here? Strikes have become less about the love of the game, and more about shouting matches between players and owners for shares in a billion-dollar enterprise. When we talk about the pillars of the game in this era, we talk about individual players—not the teams they played for. Every player who can manage to carry a team for a few games is ready to look for greener pastures, to play a market flooded with politics and consumerism. The real question becomes: What does it take to be a sports hero? When I think back to the posters I had on my wall, I am reminded of the players who transcended the game.
Are we to blame for a sports culture that supports a cookie-cutter factory of producing spotlight stars that fill stats sheets and highlight reels? Can we really blame that on players who simply want to make the best possible living with their skill set? Do athletes steeped in hard-luck stories and meteoric rises present the greatest opportunity to revive heroism in sports?
I think the answer is much simpler than that.
We often look externally for answers to the problems of our lives, and this problem of heroism in the modern sports figure is no different. The athlete does not have an obligation to be a hero, but rather chooses to be perceived one way or another based on the manner with which fans reinforce their behavior. We want to see more offense and less defense; we want more dunks and passes than lay-ups and running plays.
Is it any real surprise that vaulting over a Kia represents a shining moment in sports history, when its value is traded so highly among fans? If we want to see a game where teams don’t throw in the towel at the end of the season to get a higher draft pick, then we need to demand it. Don’t like players who use their status to influence the trajectory of the game? Then don’t support those athletes–– invest your money in someone else.
Heroes carry with them the dreams and hopes of those who aspire to be great. They are often lost in the wilderness, and through the context of their lives they find what it takes to be great… to be a hero. We have to want to be better, and we have to demand more of the sports we love and the men and women who play the game.
We must help them in their journey.
We must start looking for heroes once more.