Once upon a time, a kid could trust his priest. An athlete could trust his coach. A kid could look up to the guy who won the Tour de France every year. He could believe the inspirational story of the All-America linebacker, the record-breaking slugger and the player they called Charley Hustle.
I guess it’s always been this way to a certain extent. After all, the kid saying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” dates back to 1919.
Out of all the awful realities of 21st-century life, is there a worse one than the fact that parents now teach their kids to trust no one? Trust is a necessary ingredient in a happy life. The young Michael Jackson once sang that “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch of girls.”
Oh, wait. How’d that turn out?
In some ways, it’s a consequence of the Rise of Images. Once upon a time, Joe DiMaggio was just a guy who played baseball, albeit admired widely for a natural grace. Johnny Unitas was the simplest of heroes. Babe Ruth was a lovable galoot with a wandering eye and a taste for beer. It’s popular now to say that these heroes were protected by the sportswriters of their day, but I don’t buy it. I think the image of these athletes was basically accurate. All had flaws that their fans accepted. They didn’t make megabucks, at least when compared to the excessive salaries of today, and they weren’t as separated from their fans as much as the landed gentry of today.
They didn’t get above their raising. They didn’t tower above their fan bases. They were human beings, not brands. Now they’re like the products in infomercials. They never live up to “the brand,” and for the most part, it’s because it’s contrived and invented.
It’s a brand. It’s created not by the athlete’s (or celebrity’s) actual character but by publicists and marketers who raise the standards far beyond that which is reasonable or even human. There’s so much pressure to be a phony that most succumb.
Unfortunately, most people forgive sins but not hypocrisy. They don’t like being played for a fool by Lance Armstrong, or Jim and Tammy Bakker, or John Edwards.
Dale Earnhardt had many flaws. He was mean. He was ruthless. He could be rude. No one ever worked harder to hide a heart of gold. He had a contrarian bent and took amusement in talking to no one at precisely the time everyone wanted to talk to him. Yet his fans loved him because they saw themselves in him. A guy who worked at the cotton mill admired Earnhardt for the same reason he sang along with Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” Earnhardt often figuratively sang that song with his actions.
Like him or not – and not long before his tragic end, he had as many detractors as fans – Earnhardt was the real deal. Wealth and power changed his life but not his soul. He didn’t sell it for wealth and power. He became one of NASCAR’s great figures because he was, in fact, great. When he died, the legend grew and now, 12 years later, it still towers over the sport he loved and which, in turn, loved him back.
Sometimes people ask if I knew Earnhardt, and I say yes, and they ask, “What was he really like?” and there’s not much I can tell them that they don’t already know.
Nowadays, we see more of our heroes than ever and know them less. When a glimpse of reality escapes, it’s a shock to the system.
Appreciate the greats for what they do. Don’t assume that just because they can hit a curve ball or jump out of the gym, they are just as great playing human beings.
Everyone needs a hero, though, and my advice is look for him (or her) closer to home. Look up to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your preacher, your coach, or maybe the classmate who takes you under his wing and shows you the ropes.
Trust someone you really know, not the one whose image comes from a Nike commercial.
If you think my writing gives you a perspective you don’t get elsewhere, please consider supporting me with a monthly pledge by becoming a patron. I’ll reward you for it tangibly as well as with my writing. Read all about it here.
Most of my books are available on my Amazon author page here.