Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory” describes a man with all of life’s blessings who mysteriously commits suicide. Numerous less famous poems by Robinson similarly suggest man’s impenetrability. Many of his poems take place in the imaginary town of Tilbury, a quaint place whose inhabitants we meet but don’t really get to know. That seems to be the point. Our sense of knowing other people tends to be illusory.
I’ve been thinking about this underrated poet a lot lately, courtesy of Jerry Sandusky and Bernie Fine. One link between the sordid tales at Penn State and Syracuse is the shocked reaction of those who thought they knew the accused well, including lifelong friends. Stipulating that we don’t know the accuracy of all the myriad accusations against them, it seems safe to say that Sandusky and Fine behaved in ways that those closest to them consider unimaginable.
It’s an old story – the man who looks to all the world like a class act but eventually exposes himself as anything but. Steve Garvey, O.J. Simpson, Mark McGwire, and Tiger Woods top a long list of athletes who followed this trajectory. The sad epiphanies should come as no surprise: we really don’t know others reliably, certainly not celebrities, some of whom carefully cultivate a bogus image. But shouldn’t this phenomenon work both ways? Shouldn’t there be athletes who seem like heels and reveal themselves to be menschen? Just by the law of averages, you’d expect instances of folks who show their true colors and they turn out brighter, not darker, than what we’d perceived.
At least in the sports world, that seems not to happen much. Think how wonderful it would have been to learn that a presumed steroids-user like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens turned down injections because he didn’t want an unfair advantage. How about Bill Belichick handed illegally obtained videotape of an opponent and tossing it in the dump? Why doesn’t someone like Albert Belle or Pete Rose, Alex Rodriguez or Isiah Thomas, Mike Tyson or Randy Moss turn out to be a closet good guy?
Don’t bother with the easy examples that aren’t really examples at all, like the multi-millionaire who gives what is for him chump change to charity (George Steinbrenner) or the ne’er-do-well who finds God and turns his life around (George Foreman). I’m looking for the guy who was decent all along and we just didn’t know it.
Call it the Jack Nicholson Syndrome, after his character in Terms of Endearment. When the louse shows up to comfort the ex-lover he treated like trash (Shirley MacClaine, whose daughter is dying), she sizes up the situation and says something like, “Who would have imagined that you’re not a total bastard?”
Does that happen only in Hollywood?
Actually, no. There are a few (all too few, but we’ll take them) real-life examples of sports figures who showed seemingly out-of-character grace. I’ll offer some candidates in a few weeks, in a column suitable to the holiday season. In the meantime, help me out: closet good guys, anyone? I’m particularly interested in examples where the behavior was on or related to the playing field, especially situations where someone considered cutthroat revealed himself to value something above victory.