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Say It Ain’t So, Lance

Philip Terzian, circumspect fan

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Stan Musial, the St. Louis Cardinal who died a few weeks ago, seems to have been one of those great athletes of good character—player-hero, civic monument, example to youth—that sportswriters forever seek but seldom find.

Donald Westlake

David Gothard

If you’re a reader of a certain age you might remember a time when O.J. Simpson—now resident at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Lovelock, Nevada—was universally admired, a nice guy, superior football player, star of movie comedies and TV commercials, blessed with a sense of humor about himself, and winning manner. Not anymore! Now the axe has fallen on Lance Armstrong, professional cyclist and cancer survivor, whose many victories in the Olympics and the Tour de France were won with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. 

What really infuriates the mentioning class, however, is not so much Armstrong’s misbehavior—which, given the supreme difficulty of the Tour de France, might have prompted a debate about “performance enhancement” in sports—as the fact that he misled the mentioning class for so many years, and with such vehemence, about his drug-taking. Even a session with America’s mother-confessor, Oprah, seems not to have abated the anger directed at Armstrong.

To all of this, I say: Serves you right.

There is something almost touching about the public’s appetite for translating good athletes into great human beings, as if the qualities that inform their play might somehow influence their behavior. And this passion for hero-worship in the NFL ranks, or the NBA, or in Major League Baseball is especially human since it is so readily contradicted by facts and experience. I have nothing against jocks as a class—I was, if I may say, a better than average hitter, swimmer, and lineman in my youth—but science has yet to find any correlation between character and athletic prowess. We don’t expect distinguished painters or famous piano players to be excessively humble or nice to their mothers; we tolerate, in fact, a certain flouting of convention in the wake of genius. Why should it be otherwise for brilliant athletes?

And professional athletes, above others. These are (usually) men whose superlative gifts separated them from their peers at an early age, and who have been told for years how remarkable they are and worth every penny of their multimillion-dollar wages. They are hardly to be blamed if they come to believe it; and since athletic ability has little to do with brainpower or moral judgment, their behavior is not always a pretty sight.

I should, of course, point out at this juncture that there are exceptions to every rule (see Stan Musial, above) and that most great athletes are perfectly good citizens. But to my mind, it is a curious instinct to project onto jocks certain qualities—generosity, humor, moral character, humility—having nothing to do with their ability to play. And it should come as no surprise when disappointment ensues. 

This may prove, I suppose, only that I am not quite the fan that others can be. I confess to boredom when the private lives of Olympic athletes become part of the story; if I want pathos and personal drama, I know where to find them. When I was a lad I cut out a color photograph of Harmon Killebrew, the great Washington Senators slugger, from the newspaper and taped it onto the closet door in my bedroom. I was deeply interested in Killebrew’s batting average, always thrilled to watch him swing at a pitch, and can still recite the number of home runs he hit (42) in 1959. But I knew almost nothing else about him, apart from the fact that he came from Idaho, and that was enough. 

(On Killebrew’s behalf I should mention that I met him, decades after his playing days, and had the pleasure of introducing him to my son. He seemed like a nice man, and undoubtedly was; but that was not the reason I approached him.)

 In the meantime, Washingtonians are investing their hopes in the rookie Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is a very good player—or was, until he injured his knee—was a genuine scholar-athlete in college (he graduated from Baylor in three years with a degree in political science), and appears to be an admirable young man. Indeed, I hope he is. 

For the moment, however, I reserve judgment, always mindful of the sportswriter’s closing words in “Champion,” the Ring Lardner story about a boxer, Midge Kelly, whose brutal temperament and sadistic behavior are disguised by the press: “It wouldn’t get us anything but abuse to print it. The people don’t want to see him knocked. He’s champion.”

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