Recently, ESPN’s Bill Simmons took on the difficult topic of Tiger Woods and what his recent personal troubles mean to us—and what they should mean. It is a topic that has been beaten to death, but Tiger’s vintage performance on the front nine Sunday suddenly had us remembering 2003, pre-fiasco Tiger.
Simmons discussed watching the Masters with his three-year-old son, who thoroughly enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm around Tiger Woods. Keep in mind, golf is a sport that neither my twenty-year-old brother nor my fifty-year-old mother can take interest in on television.
What had toddler Mr. Simmons so interested?
And should adult Bill Simmons feel bad that his son took such an unabated interest in a confessed sex-addict adulterer?
In his final paragraph, Simmons touches a much more overarching subject, the way fans should consider the role of the athlete:
“If my son needs a role model, and he will, that person should be me. I don't need Tiger to teach my child how to behave. I need him to teach my son that it's fun to watch golf.”
Athletes have come to be celebrities in every sense of the word. Sports like baseball, football and basketball become more popular every year, and 24/7 sports programming on several dozen channels (coupled with instant news sources like Twitter) have made star athletes every bit as scrutinized as politicians and Hollywood actresses.
We are quick to treat athletes as role models, whether because of Kobe Bryant’s passion or Tiger Woods’ unrivalled focus under intense pressure. Both of these traits have helped them ascend to the upper echelon of their respective sports, and our instinct as fans is to extend this positive perception of their talents to what we assume are their personalities and values.
Unfortunately, athletes are inevitably human (well, Barry Bonds was mostly human). Often athletes’ most egregious mistakes become, well, egregiously public. We dissect their every move as if they are gods because athletically, that is exactly what they are.
Yet if time has proven anything about our athletic idols, it is the exact opposite. They are far from moral gods. We have seen the gamut of criminal offenses and lapses in judgment by our most famous athletes. Theft, perjury, sexual assault, murder, you name it.
So why do I point all this out? Not to ridicule or berate athletes for having faults, but to point to a cultural deficiency in the way we view athletes.
Getting back to Mr. Simmons’ quote, an athlete’s role is not “to teach [a] child how to behave.” It is to stir interest in sport, and if we are lucky, to teach a few other values—hard work, dedication, intensity, focus, humility—along the way.
It is our mistake to assume that because Tiger is God at Augusta he is a god once he crosses the cart path. Instead of assuming high-profile athletes are good role models and tearing them down when they fall short, we should be celebrating their athletic accomplishments while recognizing the truly honorable characters.
What we need is not a moral revival of athletes. We need to shift the paradigm of fan expectations.
Don’t expect Tiger or Kobe to be a role model for your son or daughter. Be one yourself and use the much-publicized stories of athletes to make specific points and examples.
We will all be better off for it.