What happens when our sports heroes fail us?

It’s bound to happen. Your son or daughter’s favorite players are discovered to be among the many who have done performance-enhancing drugs. Or, it could be they’re a cheater of a different kind – in their marriage. Perhaps they’ve joined the ignominious list of athletes who’ve been arrested for DUI, battery or other crimes. When the “heroes” our children look up to fall from grace before our eyes, what should we tell them?

According to Marianne Engle, Ph.D., Clinical Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU, “Parents should help children understand that reaching star level takes a combination of extraordinary physical ability, strong ambition, good opportunities, luck and back-breaking hard work. Very few achieve this degree of prominence,” she says, “And the process doesn’t guarantee that the athlete has developed an admirable character, moral values or strategies to deal with stress. So when talking about the particular athlete, make sure to separate sports ability from character.”

In other words, sure, they can do a windmill jam, hit the ball 500 feet or make the most amazing goal you’ve ever seen, and we can all admire what they do on the field. But leave the admiration there. Remember that off the field, they’re simply people, not unlike the rest of us, who sometimes make mistakes. In every walk of life there are good people who follow rules and abide by the law, and there are others who don’t. The biggest difference being that when sports stars do something wrong, we’ll find out about it on the news.

It would be nice to believe that we could be careful when choosing the athletes our children idolize, so as to minimize the potential for disappointment. But as we’ve all learned in the past several years, even some who most seemed to have it all together have stumbled.

Unfortunately, it appears that the best course of action is to set a child’s expectation low. There have been times I’ve watched interviews of our family’s favorite players, and they came off as articulate, humble and well-intentioned. Yet I would remind my admiring kids that just because they seem like great guys in a 30-second interview doesn’t necessarily mean they are in private.

It is also important to share stories of “real” heroes to ensure that our children have the proper perspective. Two of my teenage sons recently got hooked on the “Band of Brothers” series on A &E. It was easy to point out the magnitude of what these those young soldiers did during World War II, compared to the guys they watch on Sportscenter.

So the best course of action may be preemptive. Don’t wait until your child’s idols let you down and then try to help them understand why – but rather impress upon them early that while we can cheer for athletes to help our team win, we don’t know if they’re of strong character. We can hope they are, but not depend on it.

The toughest thing to explain is how athletes can take part in unethical and illegal activities, and still live a life of wealth and opulence. How can we convince our kids what a player did really was a mistake when the next story we hear is about the multimillion dollar contract extension he just signed?

I guess it comes down to hoping our kids understand that while money and fame may be nice, there is more satisfaction in knowing you lived your life without resorting to cheating, lying, or hurting others to achieve your goals. It is about how you’ll be remembered by others and maybe more importantly, how you’ll feel about yourself.

Or, as the elegant, early 20th century sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote:
For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks-not that you won or lost-
But how you played the game.

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