The Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles are not heroes to President Trump, who recently disinvited the team to the White House over anthem protests (after most of the players stated they would not attend). Yes, the decision is racially suspect, regressive, and borderline nonsensical considering none of the Eagle’s players kneeled last season. However, the fact that the White House isn’t feting the team for their victory — for whatever reason — may actually be good for American kids. The fact is that Americans reflexive treatment of athletes as heroes hasn’t been good for kids (many of whom have grown up wearing Aaron Hernandez, Rae Carruth, O.J. Simpson, Maurice Clarett, Ryan Leaf, and Robert Rozier jerseys). The politicization of the NFL is bizarre, but that doesn’t mean all that anthem controversy won’t have an upside.
Think of it in these terms. Eagles defensive end Chris Long donated his 2017 base salary, $1 million, to benefit educational charities. But Eagles players have been arrested more than players on any other team in their division over the last five years. Jalen Mills was charged with second-degree battery while playing for Louisiana State University in 2014. He allegedly punched a woman in the face. Long story short: These men are all spectacular athletes, but they’re not all spectacular human beings. Some are heroes, some are not. And the ones that are tend to build a platform for themselves and speak up.
This isn’t to say that kids shouldn’t look up to athletes at all. There are plenty of pro players who make fine role models for the way they handle themselves on and off the field. It’s just that being a pro-athlete should not automatically make a man or woman someone to immediately look up to. Should kids admire and learn from the skill of the pros? Absolutely. Should they want to grow up to be like them? In very many instances, no.
As media, social or otherwise, reveals more of the private lives of athletes, it’s clear that many are not by any means worthy of the term hero. They’ve been filmed beating wives. They’ve been busted for drugs, both performance enhancing and recreational. And they’ve been caught fighting dogs. This is not to mention the illegitimate children, the cheating both on and off the field, and the squandering of talent for fame.
Are the tumultuous private lives of pros any different now than in the past? Nope. Back in the ’70s, NFL players were often drunk and disorderly, and that was just during the game. Ty Cobb was a vicious alcoholic who beat his wife. Babe Ruth was a philanderer. It’s just, at the time, their images could be scrubbed and sanitized in the media. They were made to be heroes. It was a lie, sure, but it was an inspiring lie. So when the President shook an athlete’s hand, it was a vision of American perfection and power played to the pop of flashbulbs and the clatter of the newsreel cameras.
But now the truth about the very human lives of pro-athletes has been revealed. They are more like us than not, and because they control their own image, they can thrust themselves into the cultural fray, for better or worse. Which is not to say that they should “Shut up and dribble,” as conservative commentator Laura Ingraham told LeBron James. In fact, they should take every opportunity to use their status and fame as a platform for their social and political views. That is their constitutional right and more power to them for exercising that right.
But that’s not what kids need in a hero. They’re already surrounded by a world consumed with noisy political strife. What kids need are women and men who demonstrate reason, intelligence, compassion, selflessness, charity and yes, maybe even healthy physical prowess. And there are plenty of those people out there. Some are sports stars, but other are doctors, actors, entrepreneurs or scientists.
There’s also a benefit to pro-athletes in not being childhood heroes by default — they can live their lives with less pressure. They can kneel during the national anthem and go to a strip club. They can be assholes or angels as the mood strikes them. They can visit a children’s hospital or not. And they can tell the President he can stuff it. All without a child losing faith in the person they looked up to most in the world, as an example of heroism. And in the end, that’s what we as parents should be worried about.