Bob Costas and the cult of the Athlete

The other day, an athlete well beyond the bounds of reason shot his companion 9 times in front of her mother and then drove to the facility where he practiced and took his own life with a gunshot to the head in front of his coach, the team’s general manager, and police.

Immediately, the shock and horror trended towards the athlete and not his victim. Somehow, the horror and depravity of this act required a response. Jason Whitlock reflected on this deeply yesterday. He deplored a culture of violent sport and the violence that permeates much of our society. He wrote

“Our current gun culture simply ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.”

Last night Bob Costas took to his soapbox and reiterated much of Mr. Whitlock wrote, ‘recoiling from cliché’s” as he said. And yet both Mr. Costas and Mr. Whitlock reverted to their own cliché’s on gun control. They blame the gun culture for deaths of the athlete, Jovan Belcher and his fiance’. What he does not discuss is the myth and the cult of the athlete that he himself has helped create.

Many years ago former NBA star and now commentator Charles Barkley stated “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.” In response, Karl Malone, another star wrote “Charles…I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”

Athletes, whether they like or not are role models. But at the same time they are placed upon pedestals by the media, their fans, their families, and their hangers-on. There is a huge myth making industry and hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars are at stake every year across the sports universe whether it is basketball, football, soccer, track & field or any of 100 sports. Myths sell heroes. The truth is sadly different most of the time.

After year upon year of denial and miraculously passing hundreds of drug tests, Lance Armstrong was confronted with the incontrovertible facts of his cheating and finally stood silent. Never an apology, mind you. McGwire, Clemens, Bonds and Sosa all denied drug use until they could not anymore.

But more to the central mentality of high level sports; high performance athletes are separated from the herd at an early age. They are groomed and treated like thoroughbreds. Gymnasts are in special programs at the age of six or seven. Their hormones are suppressed and they are trained like circus performers to vault ever higher, twist ever more exquisitely. Their egos are crushed and stroked so that winning is the only thing. Prime baseball prospects are identified as young as eight or ten and then prepared for the big leagues.

The wining ethos is driven in again and again and the focus becomes ever more narrow, sometimes to the loss of all other perspectives.The development of character and perspective and humility often takes a back seat to the glory and the riches that can come from a skill or good genetics.

The culture of greed also has its part. Easy money brings easy times and bad decisions. It’s not an accident that many professionals are broke a few years after leaving the spotlight. In many cases it is a life of excess; easy come – easy go. Until the merry-go-round stops, that is.

And Mr. Costas and his colleagues are a large part of the star making machinery. Without their fawning approval heroes are not crowned. Laurels are not bestowed. The media are the kingmakers and the gatekeepers of fame and fortune.

It is not the gun culture that is at issue. It is the culture of sport itself. It is the billions of dollars and fame and riches beyond dreams and the loss of perspective and humility that occurs. It is a far deeper problem than Mr. Costas and Mr. Whitlock are willing to recognize. It is a moral crisis and this resides at the very core of each of us as an individual.