When it comes to athletes, Aaron Gordon writes, “great” rarely means “good.”
LeBron James is not a role model, but he wants kids to stay in school. Charles Barkley is not a role model, but he wants you to lose weight. Ben Roethlisberger wants to be a role model, but he likely raped a girl in a bar. Roger Goodell wants players like Ben Roethlisberger to be role models. In an effort to mandate morality, athletes get punished outside the law for being criminals, drug addicts, and other ethically questionable actions. Athletes aren’t role models, but we have insatiable desires to mold our athletes into exhibits of moral excellence.
Athletes fuck up at the rate of any random population sampling. We put athletes on an illusory pedestal despite countless examples of rapists, drug dealers, drug users, affairs, and general assholery. We want athletes to be good people in much the same way we hope politicians are, while full well knowing the basic human condition of occasional errant judgment applies to them as much as us. Because we so very badly want our athletes to be good people, we confuse victory with morality.
Thanks to a late-season collapse, the New York Jets will miss the playoffs despite a roster filled with immense talent. Now that they have lost, the moral crucifixion has reached its climax. The backup quarterback has accused the team of having a “corrupt mindset” and possessing too many “selfish individuals.” The day after their season ended and rumors abounded regarding the possible release of linebacker Bart Scott, he gave the media a one-fingered salute and has been fined accordingly by the team. Before the Jets missed the playoffs, they were just a mediocre team with a struggling quarterback. Now they’re selfish individuals with a corrupt mindset capable of vulgarity and childish temper tantrums. The losing preceded the moral condemnation, and it’s hard to predict any of this finger-wagging if the Jets were preparing for a weekend playoff bout.
Sports offer the truest zero-sum game we have; us against them, you against me—the complete opposite of most modern ideals of tolerance and acceptance—and we love it. Conceptualizing morality is so much easier when there are only two sides to choose from. (I don’t have to prove I’m right, just that you’re wrong.) Unfortunately, morality has many different sides. An entire subset of philosophy is dedicated to morality, ethics, and justice. These ideals formulate the cornerstones of what we ought to be and who we ought to strive to emulate. These ideas serve as complements to a greater understanding, not dichotomies. If you’ll permit me to state the obvious: morality is complicated, there is no winner or loser, and it’s often hard to say who’s right and who’s wrong.
Thankfully, sports aren’t philosophy. A winner raises his arms in triumph, a loser slumps in the corner, and all is right with the world. Winning is good; losing is bad. I don’t need to read The Nichomachean Ethics to decode these proceedings. And so we will always look to sports for our role models—not out of ideals, but ease. We can just look to the winners. They’re obviously doing something right.
With few exceptions, we look to the stars—the winners—to be our role models. When they fail to meet our moral expectations, we condemn them. The list of successful athletes who, by most accounts, are generally shitty people is almost as long as the list of successful athletes. (That’s why you often hear reporters or analysts say things like, “And he’s just a good person” as if an individual being athletically gifted and morally decent defies all laws of logic.)
Michael Jordan is perhaps one of the worst human beings to step foot on a basketball court who never—so far as we know—did anything illegal. He’s just a jackass. Yet, we don’t care, because we fail to differentiate between greatness and virtuous. LeBron James, meanwhile, was vilified and generally despised for a morally ambiguous decision. LeBron wanted to play with other great players. Michael wanted to climb the mountain alone or not at all. Such an attitude makes it easy for us to judge him. LeBron’s more complicated, and we don’t like that. Be good or be bad, as if we can tell the difference.
—Photo AP/Lynne Sladky