Where Are the Honorable People in Sports?

December 10th, 2011 at 12:00 am | 25 Comments |

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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, doctor 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.

Recent Posts by Alan Hirsch

25 Comments so far ↓

  • Ray_Harwick

    Alan, it’s an interesting challenge you pose. I think Cory is a useful analogy to a degree but he is represented in sports by every coach and athlete who is gay or lesbian and in the closet. It’s the unknown inner life they must fight with that contrasts so much with their public personality. In the gay community, when we hear about a young athlete committing suicide, our minds almost instantly wonder if that athlete was gay or lesbian. Especially with athletes, it seems we almost never find out why they killed themselves at such a young age but the research into teen suicide shows that gay and lesbian kids are the most at-risk of suicide of *all* teens. If you look into adult suicide, the highest risk group is unmarried men. Well, Richard Cory was written by a man who never married and whose closest and most enduring friendship were with men. Robinson won the Pulitizer three times and didn’t kill himself, but he certainly understood the darkness of, perhaps, great personal loneliness in a person whose public persona was enviable.

    So, on a fundamental “appearences are deceiving” level, Cory is useful.

    But is or was Jerry Sandusky ever a Cory-like person? Sandusky was seemingly untroubled at all by his behavior and far from Cory-like, seems to have never indulged in deep introspection whatsoever. Listen to him now. He talks like he’s never done any wrong. I’m not going to convict him on that, but the great guru of the research into child abuse in this country, David Finkelhor for the Univ. of New Hampshire has already made the comment that Sandusky’s attitude about his behavior is the classic marker of a pedophile: he dismisses his actions with children as unharmful and qualifies them as ordinary “guy” stuff. That’s the clear difference between Richard Cory and Jerry Sandusky.

    That’s similar to the problem with the people you associate with Sandusky with as well but their behavior is not quite the same, but inportant degrees. None of them seem to have a deeply contumplate nature about the things that are truly worthy of criticism. Setting aside Tiger Wood’s seemingly serious compassion for youngsters, the smelly thing about them is that they seemed unconcerned about their gagging behavior until they were caught red-handed. I’d even say that their expression of denial is more akin to addictive behavior rather than the deeply engrained, virtually untreatable, personality disorder associated with pedophiles. Clinically diagnosed pedophiles, especially those whose focus is pre-adolescent children, don’t ever cease having those attractions. At best, they simply discipline themselves to never act on their impulses. That’s pathology.

    If what Sandusky is accused of proves to be true, we may never expect him to do any more than refrain from acting on his impulses. But the other people? I’m not sure you’re making a thoughful comparison. Competitiveness and cash are drugs, not a pathology, and ask Jack Abramhoff whether you can lose your skills of introspection under the influence of them. If you like at Abramhoff today, it’s pretty clear he has seen the light. I think that can be said for Tiger Woods as well. The can look inward and self-correct. But there’s little to no evidence that a pedophile has introspection as a tool.

    As interesting as your challenge is, I’ve recently dwelled upon a athlete who personal life overwhelms his public life in the most perplexing way:

    Tim Tebow

    Tebow brings his religious convictions out for public inspection and rubs them into the national nose. He is both praised and despised by both religious and non-religious for what is now being openly mocked as “Tebowing” – the habit of pausing not once, but at every opportunity during a game to strike a prayerful pose and speak to God Almighty. If that’s obvious enough, he quotes scripture using with his glare patches. He’s like the Jehovah’s Witness you have to live with if you want to watch a football game. And religious people who are his critics say he is openly repudiating the teaching of the very faith he professes by making a spectacle of his piety when his holy text commands Christians to “Be careful not to practice your act of righteousness before men.” His supporters counter with “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

    What do you do with that?

    It’s like hearing a beloved President find the perfect way to blur the separation of church and state and having a Supreme Court ruling in which the vote was 4.5 favor, 4.5 against.

    So, Tebow walks the walk as a Christian when he’s not in view of a camera lens, but the NCAA outlawed all displays of religious bling on player uniforms because of Tim Tebow. Teams can still have the pre-game end zone prayer competition to their hearts content and now high schools have joined the bandwagon.

    I think most people just want to watch football.

  • NRA Liberal

    Why is it so important that our sports champions to be men of exemplary character?

    Sports is what we do these days instead of chop each other with swords.

  • Graychin

    We all know, or know of, seemingly virtuous people with hidden faults. Often those faults don’t stay hidden forever. For people in the public eye like sports figures, those human faults become magnified a thousand times when exposed.

    But it’s a very rare virtuous person who wears the mask of a scoundrel. In my experience, a mensch is a mensch is a mensch. If a scoundrel’s mask hides a mensch, how do we explain his very public bad behavior?

    I don’t think your search is likely to turn up much.

    And I second what NRA Liberal said about expecting sports figures to be better than the rest of us. I have heard of men no less respected than Catholic Priests committing crimes as evil and more numerous than those of Jerry Sandusky. And of Catholic Bishops doing more active and extensive cover-up than Joe Paterno. And of a Pope on high, doing… what?

  • Houndentenor

    I don’t see that athletes and those running athletic programs and sports franchises are any different from anyone else. Other than the media exposure how are they not similar to everyone else? Plenty of people present a public image that is incompatible with the truth. They just don’t wind up in the news.

  • Oldskool

    True good guys are held up as examples from the getgo, before they become champions. It’s good business for leagues to point them out. Example, Grant Hill and Shane Battier. Even though they played at Dook, they’re genuinely ok guys.

    I don’t know of any bad guy who turned into a good guy without being forced to, ex, Micheal Vick. Michael Jordan was the best badass who most people liked because he seemed to be a good guy even though he terrorized other players and talked a lot of trash that you wouldn’t want your kids to hear.

    • baw1064

      Charles Barkley? He actually said what is true, and was roundly criticized for it: “I am not a role model.”

      The point being that when society idolizes athletes, and then feels let down when they turn out to be all too human, is that the fault of the athletes, or of society?

  • Frumplestiltskin

    “I’m looking for the guy who was decent all along and we just didn’t know it.”
    Former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes is. He is from Easton Pa. and never left, and lives in a fairly modest suburban home, he lives a few blocks from my place in Pa. so when I am there I run into him a fair amount, if you live in that city you can run into him periodically and he is always decent to everyone. I have seen people go up to him in stores where he is shopping and chat him up and he has always been gracious.

    Yao Ming is a really sweet guy, but I think everyone already knows that. And Charles Barkley said upon the death of Manute Bol if there world were full of people like him it would be a wonderful world, a better tribute does not exist. Bol literally gave his life for his home.

  • Ray_Harwick

    More troubling in this country is the how fans demonize certain coaches and athletes. I immediately think of Baylor basketball player Brittany Griner who is the **only** female athlete in the history of the sport who is able to dunk a basketball at will. When she entered college, opponent coaches guarded her with startling aggressiveness and in Griner’s freshmen year she slugged an opposing player when she’d had enough. It cost her a spot on the 1st Team All-American list.

    You would not believe the UGLY things that were said about her from that moment on. Griner was wrong to do that, but far more wrong has been the blatant bigoted backlash coming at her on the internet. In real life she is a gentle giant (6’8″) but she gets demonized BADLY by racist fans of basketball. It just sickens me. I knew racisim existed among college fans and Griner’s case is one of the more disturbing instances. I also personally witness AWFUL racism once during a college softball playoff game when traditionally African-American Bethume-Cookman Univ. played at Tennessee Tech. Fans were shouting racial slurs at Cookman player and throwing coins at them when they were on the file. If you want to see BAD behavior, you can just look at fans.

    So, I don’t think you’ll be adding Bobby Knight to your list of nice guys with a bad rep but I’d say Reggie Miller is probably one of the most kick-ass guys from the NBA who is a pretty nice guy.

    Charles Barkley has some disturbingly compassionate moments for a person with such an aggressive profile. Skip whiner John McInrow all together. He needs to go to confession.

  • jakester

    Sports is just the same as any other cutthroat pumped up macho entertainment business. The old English upper crust sporting gent nonsense is long dead.

  • Nanotek

    “Our sense of knowing other people tends to be illusory.”

    Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live. — Mark Twain

  • ScienceChick

    Alan, you should take a deep breath and ask yourself the following question. What is the purpose of playing a game of sports? Careful, now— it’s WINNING! Ta-da! And people who coach or play professional sports? They want to WIN! As much as Charlie Sheen!

    When people in sports gain a sense of proportion, it’s hard for them to play with everything they’ve got. When Manny Ramirez signed with the LA Dodgers, they told him that he was required to donate money to their favorite charity. When he learned that the charity maintained ball parks for disadvantaged children throughout the city, he gave them a million dollars. He was at the end of his career at that point, unfortunately.

  • Secessionist

    Tim Tebow.

    They don’t come any more honorable than that young man.

    He just pulled out another one against Chicago.


    Suck on it, haters…

    • baw1064

      Too bad he keeps his religion in the closet, though.

    • Ray_Harwick

      What part of “So, Tebow walks the walk as a Christian when he’s not in view of a camera lens” fails to acknowledge Tebow’s genuine embrace of his religion? I’m an atheist and I **admire** that quality about him.

      Let’s ask the guy at the saw mill who lost his fingers if it’s a good thing to suspend your attention to your job out of fear for his eternal soul that he might be guilty of “disowning” Jesus if he doesn’t take every opportunity to acknowledge Him. Imagine the truck driver heading down the interstate who embraces that view. It would be no less dangerous others on the road than someone who is texting while driving.

      That’s why a *sensible* Christian embraces the wisdom of Matthew 6: 5-6:

      5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

      What Tebow does is no less a repudiation of the teachings of his faith than the that of the overwhelming majority of *all* religions who selective dismiss the teachings of their own faith when it’s inconvenient to uphold them. There’s probably not a more prominent religious person in sports than Tim Tebow. Good that he is grounded in a just and worthy philosophy; not so good when he makes a mocking spectacle of it. I know where the trail leads. It leads to the growing roar of Christians saying “We’re being persecuted for our beliefs because we profess that gays are an abomination.” The *only* GOP candidate who hasn’t signed onto THAT meme is Jon Huntsman. It’s the mainstay of Perry, Romney, Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, and 9-9-9.

      Really. You ought to be on the receiving end of this “percecution complex” for a few year so you can fully appreciate the feel of being clubbed with it.

      • Ray_Harwick

        Persecuted Christian Update: After setting a new YouTube record for the most “dislike” clicks (over 500,000 until the Perry campaign disabled the button) on his “I’m Proud To Be A Persecuted Christian Who Hates Gays” video, musicians at Harvard noted that the background music of that video was a composition of America’s most notable composer – Aaron Copeland (see Fanfare For The Common Man) – whose unabased open homosexuality is the stuff of legend.

        Given that newly outed gay Perry staffer Tony Fabrizio helped create that advertisement, it looks like **somebody** slipped in a little joke on the boss. And since it was gay conservative group GOProud who first outed Fabrizio for that *exact* ad, and then apologized for it the following day after getting their hands slapped for “outting someone who was simply doing his job” by ANOTHER gay conservative group, Log Cabin Republicans, the public better stock up on lots of popcorn. The clown car has the peddle to the metal.

        • Secessionist

          Ray: I disagree with this perspective and feel secular society does unfairly persecute Christians, especially the evangelicals. The taunts, mockery and ridicule directed at Tim Tebow is an example of the kind persecution that Christians have to put up with that people of other faiths don’t.

          Persecution is a very strong word, but they are definitely subjected to unfair double-standards and an amount of ridicule that would not be tolerated if Tebow and others were Jewish, Muslim or anything but evangelicals.

          The Jewish stance on homosexuality in orthodox circles is not any more tolerant than the Christian stance, nor is the Muslim stance. Yet Jews and Muslims are rarely if ever called bigots because of their religious perspectives. In fact, under a strict application of Jewish law, based on the condemnation of homosexuality that appears in Leviticus, the penalty for homosexuality should be death.

          As an atheist with two openly gay family members and one who recognizes and values the many contributions of homosexuals to the arts and high culture, homosexuality does not bother me. I can recognize a double-standard when I see it though.

        • Ray_Harwick

          Yet Jews and Muslims are rarely if ever called bigots because of their religious perspectives.

          Clearly, we don’t read the same web sites. I don’t know of *any* gay web site that doesn’t condemn *any* religious group for anti-gay advocacy. You should read what gay blogs report on the Ortodox Jews of New York and their frighteningly anti-gay activites. We see stories all the time from the Middle East about gays being murdered in the streets without *anyone* suffering the threat of arrest for doing it. Iraq *still* permits wholesale murder of gays, and homosexuality is punishable by death in most of the Middle Eastern nations today.

          That’s one thing gays don’t discriminate on and it’s news about *anyone* who seeks to harm us. I just wish the American public was forced-fed the news. Muslims in this country seem to be too afraid to express their view about *any* social issue. My brother-in-law was born and raised in Iran and I know the Iranian community of Los Angeles pretty well. They keep their heads ducked and their ears open because they’ve had their shop window smashed on a number of occasions not unlike gay business have. But the Orthodox Jewish communities are a whole different type. They are strident anti-gay bigots of the first order and *no* different than Rick Perry about sounding off on the subject. Gay web sites report on them all the time but that news RARELY, if ever, makes it into the mainstream news.

        • Secessionist

          That’s interesting. Thanks for that information. I stand corrected.

        • Ray_Harwick

          I was a Pentecostal Holiness for 28 year and then had a short stint with the Mormons because I didn’t think the Pentecostal were rough enough on me for being gay. The Mormons were an entirely different environment. They play rough because unlike evangelicals, Mormons confront the subject explicitly in their indoctrination. It was the actually the Mormons who put me on the road to considering a free thinking world view because the reception was Ice Cold when I confided in confidence in my ward’s bishop. He not only was uncompassionate, he turned the congregation against me.

          My entire family are, today, evangelical Christians. My two brothers have not spoken to me more than a dozen times in 30 years, or when I came out to them. They tell people they don’t have another brother. My two sisters are different. One is privately supportive, but not so publicly. The other *loves* to stand up in church and use me as a warning to others. Mind you, between my four siblings there have been 13 spouses and 12 divorces. Of my relatives who “friend” me on Facebook, in two years of publishing intermittant articles on gay advocacy, I’ve had exactly *one* relative respond supportively. Otherwise, they don’t respond at all. That one response was when I told them that a gay friend of mine who had been in a same-sex partnership for 56 years had died while waiting for the chance to get married in California. His dead partner’s relatives sued to claim his estate. My nephew was somehow moved by that information.

          I have two gay cousins. Nobody ever told me they existed. I met them because we happened to be the *only* members of our family engaged in genealogy research and we bumped into each other online doing that. Doing genealogy research while gay is fraught with danger. That’s because most of the people you meet are relatives a generation or two removed from you who are from the same religious tradition you are. In my case, that would be the Church of Christ and Jews. They prosletize in genealogy forums just like Tim Tebow does on the football field, and if you ask them to honor the purpose of the forum – genealogy – they’ll do what I’ve reported Christians doing upthread – claim you are persecuting them for their religious belief. And when they take a look at your genealogical record and find that you are married to a same-sex partner, they will *cease* sharing information with you.

          Suffice to say that your belief that Christians are subject to double standards is not what I witnessed by being a gay person who lived on both the closeted side and the “out” side of religious culture. On the inside you have to stand and smile and pretend that one of your brothers or sisters in Christ didn’t just say that all gays are child molester or that being gay will in and of itself mean 1) you have AIDS, 2) you will die by the time you are 47 years old. 3) you are incapable of maintaining a long-term relationship, 4) you are responsible for promoting polygamy, incest and bestiality 5) you will destroy the fabric of America 6) your presence in the military will disrupt unit cohesion 7) you recruit children to populate the gay lifestyle. 8 ) your children will be gay. 9) your historic gay fellows were Nazi and the architects of the holocaust 10) you are persecuting Christians if you object to them calling you an abomination 11) [fill in blank with the most evil thing you can think of].

          That’s my experience both within and outside of my Christians faith. I remember how I longed to worship peacefully and not have someone broadside me with some outrageous view of homosexuality. They were people I loved doing it and little did the understand that the first person I ever come out to was Almight God.

        • Secessionist

          Ray, Thanks for sharing this information. I don’t have a reason to read gay-oriented news sites, so I operate off of impressions of how this subject is treated in the mainstream media where anti-gay bias among Jews, Muslims and others is rarely or never discussed. I was raised in an evangelical background myself but left it behind long ago. In my personal life, my grandmother set an example that has greatly influenced my thinking on this topic. She was a devout Southern Baptist her entire life (she met Billy Graham a few times). Her attitude toward her gay grand kids (my cousins), however, was one of total acceptance and unwavering support. For this reason and because of the mainstream media treatment, I have always regarded claims of anti-gay bias among evangelicals as exaggerated. My grandmother was very traditional yet in other ways far ahead of her time. Perhaps I haven’t sufficiently appreciated how she was not typical. I’m glad we exchanged words on this point.

        • Graychin

          Ray, thank you for your post. It should soften the opinions of the sort who agree with the Santorum worldview about gay people. (A guy can hope, can’t he?)

          Secessionist: I watched my hard-shell Baptist neighbor and her hard-shell mother flip from being very anti-gay to being loving and accepting of gays – as a result of my neighbor’s gay son coming out to the family, and eventually to the world. Of course some relatives of gays will try to deny their existence (Ray’s experience), but as more and more Christians (and others) learn that they actually KNOW nice gay people, attitudes will change. Attitudes are changing fast in America, and I attribute it to the fact of more gays being open about it. When you actually KNOW a gay person and see that he or she isn’t such a monster…

          When I was a kid in the 1950s-1960s, I never knew a gay person. Not even one. Now I know that three of my good high school friends were/are gay. Same with my wife, who went to her senior prom with a guy who has since come out. (They weren’t boyfriend/girlfriend, but they both liked to dance!) It’s a good change, bigots of all religions notwithstanding.

          (Christians get most of the criticism for being bigots primarily because there are so many more of them, and because they are the ones who rail about to those of us outside their particular sect – and try to inject their attitudes into politics. Take Rick Santorum – please!)

        • Ray_Harwick

          Today in Moslem anti-gay bigotry: Scottish Moslems Join Scottish Christians to Fight Gays


          Today in Loving Christians: American Family Association leader says if you “dislike” Rick Perry’s “I Am Proud To Be A Persecuted Christian Who Hates Gays” ad (which got over 500K “dislike” clicks) you support bestiality.


          Today In The Gingrich Initiative To Defend Faith And Family: Gingrich Signs Anti-Gay Pledge And Vows To Stop Having Adulterous Affairs:


          Today In Anti-Gay Bigotry – Romney Episode: Romney Accidently Seeks Photo-Opt With New Hampshire Old-timers To Tell Them He Opposes Same-Sex Marriage: Old-timers Were A Gay Married Couple And Viet Nam Veterans.


          Today In Lies About Gays: World Net Daily Claims Hate Crimes Act Doesn’t Protect Against Religious Bias


          A simple Google search show: The Matthew Shepard-Jame Bird Jr. Hate Crimes Act extends to crimes motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin and sexual orientation or sexual identity. Note: This law has existed and included “religion” since 1969. On in the Obama Administration was sexual orientation/identity included. The Southern Poverty Law Center, local law enforcement and ACLU have the Hate Crimes Act dozens of time to prosecute on the basis of acts against religious people and religious groups. That pretty much makes World Net Daily liars.

  • Fart Carbuncle

    There is no honor at Penn State.

    For over a decade they figuratively stuffed JoePa and walked him to the games, sometimes carried him, sometimes even put him in the upstairs booth, all to pad his win/loss record to the “unbeatable” level.

    Now, the shameful university must pay for their greed and lust for immortality.

    JoePa and his family were slimy, lawyered-up creeps getting ready for the litigation, selling the family home to the wife for one dollar over the summer and other purely grotesque self-saving stunts.

    I want to vomit thinking of that child getting raped in the shower, all heard and observed, and no one doing anything about it.

  • LFC

    Pete Rose, arguably one of MLB’s greatest, bet on his own team. He was found out AFTER he retired. He is not in the Hall of Fame.

    Roberto Alomar spewed spit into an umpire’s face and MLB refused to keep him out of the playoffs, instead suspending him from regular games at the start of the next season. He is in the Hall of Fame.

    And how many times was Darryl Strawberry slapped on the wrist for his drug use?

    All you have to know is that money rules in sports. If Pete Rose had 5 good years left as a start player in him when his betting was found out, his story would have turned out much different.