Why do we glorify athletes?

a/Behind the Bench/Sports by

George Best was an incredible soccer player, most notably appearing for Manchester United through the ‘60s and early ‘70s. In fact, he was so good, that if the soccer adage, “Maradona good; Péle better; George Best,” is true, then he was the greatest of the day. Best combined a deft touch on the ball with incomparable pace, delighting audiences and fans across the globe. Unfortunately, he was also a notorious drinker. 

Often reported to have played matches hungover or skipping them entirely to party—once he even showed up on a primetime chat show shockingly inebriated—his alcoholism led to his undoing. In 2000, he was diagnosed with severe liver damage. For most, a condition of this magnitude would be the end; however, Best was not most people. Rallying behind him and his athletic genius, the public bolted him to the top of the donor list, and funded his transplant through the National Health Service.

Sadly, despite the success of the transplant and the obvious preferential treatment he received due to his celebrity status, Best refused to quit drinking, and ultimately died in 2005 from the interactions of alcohol and the immunosuppressant drugs one must take following a transplant. In a macabre twist of self-reflection, his final address to the masses before his death was a message that read, “Don’t die like me.”

More recently, Baltimore Ravens star linebacker and Super Bowl XLVII winner Ray Lewis retired a champion. His final victory seemed hardly tarnished by his connection to the banned substance “deer antler spray” less than a week before the Super Bowl to help him get over a triceps tear he suffered earlier in the year. His hulking 37-year-old frame is almost certainly a product of years of steroid-induced muscle gain. In fact, the mere occurrence of a triceps tear—which is generally far too small of a muscle to invoke a tear—and his miraculous comeback when doctors told him that his year was finished, lends greater credence to the banned substance claim.

Shockingly enough, is that many of Lewis’s fans are unaware that in 2000, he and two friends were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault for the death of two men following an altercation outside a nightclub. Lewis’s bloodstained white suit, which witnesses saw him wearing, was never recovered, nor the blood of the victims in his limousine ever explained. Finally, after admitting to giving a misleading report to police the day after the event, and plea-bargaining by testifying against his co-conspirators, Lewis pled guilty to a mere misdemeanour charge of obstruction of justice. The plea bargain was never proposed to the others involved in the case; and, unsurprisingly, Lewis returned to the NFL to glowing reviews and undying adoration for his “killer” instincts and hard-hitting abilities.

Yet, what does this all mean? This is assuredly neither a plea to promote sobriety, nor an embittered, sensationalist attack against Lewis. It is, instead, a critique of our glorification of athletes, and our unwillingness to recognize them as equals. With their status, they get off scot-free from mistakes—ones that deserve to punished in a fitting, and unbiased manner.

This sentiment is not just damaging culturally, but ultimately hurts the celebrity, as his or her period of privilege comes to an end. No one can be the best forever, and when the skill that made that person sensational inevitably fades, that individual is often ill-prepared to combat the reality of being “normal.”

78 per cent of NFL players declare bankruptcy just three years removed from the league, with 60 per cent of NBA players joining them after five years. This comes at a time when salaries are higher than ever, and are continuing to rise. Clearly, there is a rupture between what is expected of athletes in the league, and what is expected of them beyond the league.

Whether this disconnect is related to addiction, the law, or financial planning; we, as the consumers of their great talent, can truly benefit from admiring sports stars for their athleticism—while remembering that they too, are just humans and therefore must operate under the same moral rules.

So the next time you see Tom Brady out on the football field, remind yourself that he put that uniform on the same way you would—one leg at a time—regardless of how good-looking he may be once he does. Trust me, it’ll help him too.