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Reminders Flood In: Athletes Are People, Not Heroes

Posted: February 19, 2013

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We often put athletes on a pedestal. But after the latest accusations of bad behavior — accusations that include a murder charge against Oscar Pistorius — it may be time to lower that pedestal several notches, says Frank Deford.

The Los Angeles Lakers' Metta World Peace (center), formerly known as Ron Artest, has been suspended 12 times for displays of violence during his career. Here, he is fouled during a recent game against the Phoenix Suns.

The Los Angeles Lakers' Metta World Peace (center), formerly known as Ron Artest, has been suspended 12 times for displays of violence during his career. Here, he is fouled during a recent game against the Phoenix Suns. Danny Moloshok

Oscar Pistorius, seen here at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, made history as the first double leg amputee to race in the Summer Olympics. He now faces charges that he murdered his girlfriend.

Oscar Pistorius, seen here at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, made history as the first double leg amputee to race in the Summer Olympics. He now faces charges that he murdered his girlfriend. Ben Stansall

Lance Armstrong has confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France, reversing more than a decade of denial. He has been stripped of his record seven Tour titles.

Lance Armstrong has confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France, reversing more than a decade of denial. He has been stripped of his record seven Tour titles. Laurent Rebours

The New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez has admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs when he played for the Texas Rangers in 2001. Here, he takes a practice swing during a 2007 game.

The New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez has admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs when he played for the Texas Rangers in 2001. Here, he takes a practice swing during a 2007 game. Chris O'Meara

After Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was named the National League MVP in 2011, he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. His 50-game suspension was eventually overturned on appeal.

After Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was named the National League MVP in 2011, he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. His 50-game suspension was eventually overturned on appeal. Paul Nordmann

Oscar Pistorius, seen here winning a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, faces charges that he murdered his girlfriend. Pistorius also competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Oscar Pistorius, seen here winning a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, faces charges that he murdered his girlfriend. Pistorius also competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Ben Stansall

These have certainly been dispiriting times for those who admire athletes, who proclaim that sports build character. The horrendous shooting by Oscar Pistorius is of course, in a category mercifully unapproached since the O.J. Simpson case, but the Whole Earth Catalog of recent examples of athletic character-building is certainly noteworthy.

In the illegal drugs category we have, of course, Lance Armstrong and a whole roster from our national pastime, including two Most Valuable Players: Alex Rodriguez, who has already been nabbed once; and Ryan Braun, who only escaped conviction through a dubious loophole.

Throughout Europe, in hundreds of matches, "the beautiful game," soccer, turns out to have more corrupt players on the fix than does Illinois politics.

Our glorious intercollegiate football champion, Alabama, has given us three student-athletes who were caught roaming the campus, allegedly mugging real student-students. It was comforting to learn from Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide mentor, that such behavior was, quote, "unacceptable ... and not representative of our football program."

That's telling it like it is, Coach: We at Alabama draw a line in the sand at assault, battery, and grand theft when it comes to our players.

Naughtiness is apparently more, uh, acceptable in the NBA. Thanks to a compilation online, we learn that one Laker has just received his 12th suspension for displays of violence, this "for grabbing [an opponent] around the neck and striking him in the jaw."

The player, you will be interested to know, now goes by the name of Metta World Peace. It is also a matter of record that after his ninth suspension, the NBA, in its wisdom, awarded said Mr. World Peace the NBA's Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.

What invariably fascinates me anew after incidents such as these is that observers rush to caution fans to be wary of worshipping athletes as heroes. But really, can there be any grown-ups left who do not understand that sports stars are only that: people playing games?

Given how fast children grow up now and how difficult it is to conceal reality from them, is it even possible any longer that intelligent kids hold athletes up to be the same heroes in their lives that they are in their games?

But it's still the case that when other performers — actors or musicians — are caught misbehaving, nobody laments that children's dreams are being destroyed.

Despite all the continuing evidence that a great many young males who play sports — like young males in every society — are inclined toward unacceptable behavior, we maintain the wishful thinking that athletes should be admired and emulated.

We do love sport so; we do so want to believe the best for it.

Please, please, I don't want to believe that Oscar Pistorius is an athlete.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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