We are a society that enjoys placing people on pedestals. Whether it is actors, athletes, or any number of other categories, people who possess certain skills are often elevated above the rest. As long as the elevated people behave in the manner that the masses below expect there are no issues. But, once they start to slip, the lofty spot gets a little wobbly ahead of the inevitable crash back down to earth.
As a youngster I had a few role models/heroes from the Baltimore Orioles. I would watch these players and coaches on the television each night and all I knew of them was the persona that was projected through the broadcast. These were the pre internet years and still part of the time when the media didn’t feel the need to report every aspect of a person’s private life. So the elements that were broadcast were largely related to actual performance on the field. If a player happened to go home with someone other than his wife after a game, or went to a bar until it closed, it was not blasted across the sports section the next day.
The media considered it their job to cover the game between the lines and anything else was considered a personal matter between the player and his family and not something to be broadcast across the wire for the world to see. This relationship tended to bond the players and the media together as did the countless hours that the media spent traveling with the players. It was not that the reporters were withholding information from the public, it was that they respected that the athletes were flawed people like the rest of us and there was no need to air dirty laundry that was not related to their jobs.
Sadly by the time I entered the profession the 24-hour news cycle was already in place and the players lost some of their privacy forcing reporters to dig deeper into stories that were not really stories leading to a tabloidization of the sports section. I would love to think that we would grow tired of trash journalism and return to a more noble way to handle things. Sadly, that genie has been out of the bottle for far too long to go back now. Adding to the difficulty of returning to simpler times is the fact that we have generations of people who don’t know any other way to do things.
A few years back, okay a decade or two back, my mother picked me up from school to go see a Spring Training game for my birthday. This particular game featured the Baltimore Orioles and the Minnesota Twins. We arrived early at the ballpark and as we were reaching our seats Hall of Famer Frank Robinson came out to the wall where people were signing autographs. I took my game program over and waited to get his signature. Instead of moving through the line of children that were waiting Mr. Robinson proceeded to flirt with a pair of women and totally ignored the waiting children. And while this event happened over 25 years ago the memory is still as fresh today as it was then. While Frank Robinson had every right to not sign the autographs, the manner in which he left me and the other kids waiting left a lot to be desired. He could have just said, “sorry kids, I don’t sign autographs” and we would have gone back to our seats but for this “role model” to totally ignore his fans was not the best way to handle things.
Actress Natalie Portman has famously said on numerous occasions that she is not a role model and that her celebrity alone for doing her job does not make her feel any additional pressure or responsibility to all of the people who look up to her. While Natalie is right, what is it that makes people look up to celebrities and athletes and consider them role models? For me, I consider a ball player who plays the game the right way and doesn’t get caught up in scandal a person I can respect. Of course it is getting harder and harder to know who to respect as there are almost daily reports of players who were caught or suspected of using steroids and other banned substances to get an advantage over the competition.
Often times it is a no brainer to catch the cheaters. There was never any doubt in my mind that Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez had a slight advantage that perhaps was pharmaceutical based when they were posting their monster numbers and crashing through the record books like a runaway train. While certain players make it easy to determine guilt or innocence through failed drug tests and other means the line between guilty or not guilty of Performance Enhancing Drugs, or PED use is a little murkier for some.
Another player caught up in the web of suspicion of using PED’s was Roger Clemens. While only “The Rocket” knows for sure what he did and didn’t take, I, and a federal jury, do not believe that he took anything that was illegal to gain an advantage. Do I think that he is a good role model? Not really based on some of his off field activities. Despite not considering Roger Clemens a role model, I do respect the way he played the game and the dominance that he showed for decades. Despite being cleared by a jury in a perjury trial Roger Clemens will face an uphill climb in his bid to gain entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Logic says that based on his career numbers and the legal victory he should be a lock for Cooperstown. But after failing to gain entry on the first ballot it appears the voters have a different take on the matter and the guilty by association tag will follow him for years to come.
One player that I followed that always seemed to play the game the right way, and never got into any controversy was Cal Ripken, Jr. Cal was the longtime shortstop and third baseman for the Orioles. Cal played all of his 21 seasons with the Orioles and became known as “The Iron Man” for breaking Lou Gehrig’s 56-year-old record of 2,130 consecutive games in 1995 and playing in 2,632 consecutive games overall before missing a game for the first time in 1998.
To put things in proper perspective from 1981 to 1998 Cal Ripken, Jr. did not miss a single day of work. Granted, work consisted of playing baseball from April to September so one could argue he had around half of the year off. Still, I am not sure there are many people in any profession that can say that they have gone that long without missing work for vacation or sick days, etc. So I looked up to him for the way he played the game and the quiet manner in which he approached things while amassing some huge numbers for his position. Cal Ripken, Jr. has also written several books on how to play the game and in his retirement is active in placing ballparks in underprivileged areas to ensure that everyone has access to quality baseball fields.
So do players and other celebrities bare a responsibility to be role models? It is hard to say. Is Natalie Portman correct in her assessment that she just does a job and people need to leave her alone or should ballplayers and other celebrities be expected to be more like Cal Ripken, Jr. and continue to give back after their playing days are done? I like to think that players would want to be someone that is worth looking up to but I also know it is the media and the public’s responsibility to identify people who are worth emulating, and those who have behavior traits that should be ignored.
Do I realistically think that this approach will ever come to pass? I like to think that I am optimistic about most things but must admit a large dose of pessimism on that regard. It seems we have now entered a phase where pedestals are built to be broken and while we tend to honor people who build themselves back up after the fall it also seems like many people are knocked down just for sport and the people who just go about their business without drawing excessive attention to themselves are ignored. Now if you’ll excuse me I think younger me needs to come to terms with Frank Robinson giving him the brush off.
Copyright 2013 R. Anderson