|LBERT PUJOLS TESTS positive for steroids. What would you feel?|
Dwyane Wade is arrested for DUI. What would you say?
Lance Armstrong is undoubtedly exposed as a doping cheat. What would you do?
These are hypothetical scenarios that I hope never materialize. But seeing as how each of these men is human, the scenarios are not impossible. Sure, they all do great things athletically and socially, and Pujols and Wade are professing Christians. They are role models parents can feel comfortable letting their kids emulate in sports and life.
But what if they stumble, what if they fall? (Apologies to DC Talk.) These are men who are held in extremely high esteem. Pujols has been cast by many as baseball's savior, the relentless slugger spiriting the sport away from the Steroid Era. Wade is the humble superhero, as charming off the court as he is brilliant on it. Armstrong is an icon, hope made incarnate for his conquests of two kinds of mountains -- cancer and the Pyrenees (that was seven straight Tour de France titles, in case you forgot).
How devastating would it be to sports fans' collective psyche if any of those men were ruined by their own actions? It would probably push every single one of us over the edge into irreversible cynicism. We've been disillusioned before -- Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant -- but to see Pujols, Wade or Armstrong scandalized would irreparably shatter our faith.
That would be our fault, though, not theirs. We should know by now, thanks in part to Rafael Palmeiro and friends, not to treat athletes (or any other celebrities) as demigods. They will err, sometimes so egregiously that we can't justify or ignore it. Yet we continue to raise up new idols for worship, placing them precariously on the rubbish of the last fallen idol.
This points to our innate need for a savior. We seek someone who inspires us to be better than we are (I don't know of anyone who would admit to being completely satisfied with himself; I know I'm not). We seek a standard bearer, one whose seeming perfection we hope to somehow duplicate; or if nothing else, we can hold them up as our ideal, our moral code made manifest.
We want to live vicariously through this person, imagining that to be even a little like him makes our life worthwhile. Of course none of us will swing like Pujols, shoot like Wade or dominate like Armstrong, but those men represent what many people wish they were.
When idols such as these crumble under the weight of expectations and praise, we do one of two things: we reject them and find a replacement, or we look past their imperfections and find a way to excuse the athlete's behavior. Either way, the idol worship continues.
There is a third option, of course, and that is to recognize the intrinsic frailty of all humans and stop becoming so emotionally and spiritually invested in men who are, in the big picture, neither greater nor lesser than the rest of us. That would entail not so dramatically judging men, either positively or negatively, based on their words and deeds. In other words, we would not deify them in their moments of greatness, and we would not scourge them in their moments of weakness. For men are much more human when they sin than when they do good.
This would mean realizing that these men need a savior as desperately as the rest of us do, and that like us, they will always be disappointed if they seek salvation in anyone other than Jesus.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sports journalist in Tupelo, Mississippi.
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