A lot of National Football League players have been right up on the front page lately, but for all the wrong reasons. Ray Rice is in serious trouble for knocking his then-fiancé out cold—the tape of the event is enough to make almost anyone at least slightly ill. Adrian Peterson will soon be up on charges for punishing his four-year-old son with a switch. Two other ballers of an especially hard-nosed type are also in trouble with the law over domestic abuse. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers has been convicted of the crime: his case is on appeal. (He was on the field this past Sunday, post-conviction.) Ray McDonald of the San Francisco Forty-Niners is being investigated. Meanwhile, almost forgotten in the new melee of violence and possible violence, Aaron Hernandez, former star tight end of the New England Patriots, sits in a prison cell in Massachusetts awaiting trial on multiple counts of murder.
What are we to make of all this? Why are these players—and perhaps a few others as yet undetected and uncharged—behaving so badly?
No less a personage than Dwight David Eisenhower observed that one should never try to understand why it is that people do what they do. They simply do it, that’s all. Observe what they do and make the best of it you can.
And yet one still wonders what this misbehavior is all about.
When I posed the question to a friend of mine, he responded directly. What do you expect? They’ve been worshipped like gods ever since they were kids, he told me. And that’s true enough. Adults have melted in awe at their ability to fling a ball down a field, dodge a tackler, or knock another player on his can. Of course some have outsized egos and a royal sense of entitlement. Of course some think they can get away with more than the rest of us. If someone had treated you like a monarch from the time you could wear shoulder pads, so would you. If people took you for a hero because you could create first downs or stop them, what would you be like?
I thought about what my friend said (and what I heaped on to his observation myself) and after a while I suspected that he was on to something. The operative word here was a common enough one. The operative word was “hero.”
In our culture we treat sports players as heroes. Of course we do: because what they achieve on the playing field is amazing. Baseball players and hoop stars and of course gridiron greats perform spectacular feats all the time. And so we worship them—of course we do.
But is a football player (or an ace b-baller or a twenty game winning pitcher) really a hero? If you think so, you are parting company with tradition.
In the Western tradition a hero is, in the earliest manifestation, a warrior. It’s someone like Homer’s Hector, or Virgil’s Aeneas, who is willing to fight and if necessary to die to defend his people. Hector has to face the amazing Achilles in defense of Troy—and of course Hector loses. Aeneas fights all enemies, including the formidable Turnus, to secure the founding of Rome. In the Hebrew tradition, David steps up to Goliath to save his nation.
Other heroic archetypes come along over time. People learn to stand in awe not only of warriors, but of saintly individuals like Jesus and Buddha and Confucius. People learn to salute great thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and later major scientists like Einstein. Human beings first find their heroes among warriors and spiritual leaders and men and women of imposing intellect. The saint, the warrior, the true thinker: these were the original heroes.
We still need heroes. Everyone at every time has. But we cannot find our martial heroes on the battlefield anymore. We do not know if our recent wars are just. We do not know if our causes are true. Were we right to invade Afghanistan? Were we ultimately justified in going into Iraq? Most people are not sure.
The newspapers don’t tell us many stories of the men and women who fight under our colors in the Middle East. We usually do not know who they are and what they are doing. Right now we do not have bona fide martial heroes to praise.
So we worship football players instead. We worship athletes: we swoon at the feet of simulation heroes. The average NFL fan can probably name 20 football heroes. How many heroes from the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan can the fan name?
Football players can be brave: it’s true. What they do on Saturday and Sunday afternoons is graceful, beautiful and dangerous. But no football player who ever lived or ever will live is a hero in the way that a man or woman who risks his or her life in a just cause is a hero. Those are real heroes. The Greeks were devoted to sports: they were, of course, the inventors of the Olympic games. But no Greek would tell you that an athlete was more important than Leonidas and the three hundred Spartans who stopped the Persians at Thermopylae. No Greek could imagine that an athlete was more to be praised than Themistocles and his sailors, who won the victory at Salamis.
Sports heroes are simulation heroes. I love sports—don’t get me wrong. But we’ve blown the games and the players all out of proportion.
The players: we treat them like Hector and Achilles and Aeneas and Ajax. We look at them as though they were man-gods. And after a decade and a half of being worshipped, is it surprising if pro athletes turn out to be willful, spoiled, bullying and selfish? Remember how the gods in the Greek myths were prone to act? They were willful and selfish and all the rest.
If we could start worshipping real heroes—true thinkers and just warriors and lovers of humanity—we could take back a little bit of our investment in football idols. That would be a fine change for us all—and I’ll bet it wouldn’t be a half bad thing for the players, either.
Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia. His book, Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game, is just out from Penguin.