For me, the last straw came in 1996, when Baltimore Oriole star Roberto Alomar spat in the face of the home plate umpire after a called third strike. Rumors of drug abuse, the infamous player strike of 1994, and the generally arrogant attitude of players had already soured me on MLB, but the spitting incident was the last straw. This was not the way professional athletes are supposed to behave.
Not that I’m claiming any moral high ground. When Jack Tatum put Darryl Stingley in a wheelchair and then exploited his vicious hit to build his image as an “assassin,” I continued to be a rabid NFL fan, barely giving the matter a second thought.
To Model or Not to Model — That’s Not a Question
Charles Barkley famously said he was not a role model.
Wrong. Anyone in the public eye is a role model, like it or not. For that matter, anyone who interacts with anyone is a role model. It’s just a matter of scope and degree of influence.
Athletes, because they carry so much influence with so many young, impressionable people, have even more of a responsibility than the average public figure to exhibit good character.
The 1919 Chicago Black Sox are still remembered, so Roberto Alomar by no means opened the floodgates. But we now find ourselves drowning in ever deepening waters of bad sportsmanship. Players break the rules, which is bad enough, but then compound the affront by brazenly lying about it in the media, at congressional hearings and in court. Athlete protests have mushroomed in scope from perceived grievances over called third strikes to perceived grievances over the political direction of the U.S.
True, many sports idols of bygone eras were hardly saints, but at least they attempted to project a positive image, and were given strong assists from a compliant media. Today, players flaunt their negative images and the media is all too ready to stir up scandal rather than keep a lid on it.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
Even more disturbing, fans turn a blind eye to bad role models, continuing to sink time and money into sports. Bread and circuses are beating out character, and the score isn’t even close.
Railing against the demise of good sportsmanship isn’t going to even the score. The only way to change the atmosphere on the field is to stop rewarding unsportsmanlike behavior. As long as alums sink money into college sports, fans pack stadiums and stay glued to their TVs, and fans and non-fans alike gamble on sports like drunken sailors, athletic organizations will feed us more of the same. As long as the public prefers stories of scandal over stories of virtue, the media will feed us more of the same.
Athletes are professionals — yes, even at the collegiate level. Professionals, if they are any good at all, do what you pay them to do, not what you tell them to do.