Charlie Leonard: Inalianable Rights

The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Following Tiger Woods’ recent win at the Bay Hill Invitational golf tournament last month, Nike released a commercial featuring its star endorser that defiantly stated, “Winning settles everything.”

Company representatives said the ad was intended only to answer questions about the golfer’s competitive drive after several years of uneven play. What Nike didn’t acknowledge, but almost everyone assumes, is that the ad also was intended to silence anyone still critical of Woods’ personal transgressions off the course.

As a sports fan in general, and a lover of the game of golf in particular, I thought the ad was contemptible. Woods and Nike could not be more wrong. Winning does not settle everything – on or off a golf course or any other competitive field of play, for that matter.

But make no mistake – Woods only gets away with this because we let him.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there were standards in collegiate and professional sports that required athletes to conduct themselves with some grace, humility and decorum, both on and off their respective stages. The penalty for transgressions – in competition or after hours – often ran the gamut from serious image damage to outright banishment.

I’m not suggesting that everyone in the past walked a straight line. On the contrary, bad behavior in sports has been with us since the beginning. What’s different is how we react to it.

Think Pete Rose – whose lifetime of athletic accomplishments will never be fully recognized due to Rose’s derisive betting on baseball games in violation of the league’s rules and code of conduct.

Yet today, the most notorious liar, cheater and bully in the history of all sports, Lance Armstrong, is given several hours of prime-time television to “tell his story” and explain why he should be allowed to resume participating in organized competition.

I guess I understand why a narcissist and psychopath like Armstrong would try to continue imposing himself on us. What I don’t understand is why anyone would give him a platform or bother to listen.

It’s clear that Armstrong has no shame because if he did, he would have just gone away.

But what about the rest of us? Should we still believe in athletes as role models?

I’ve heard the theory going around that suggests elite athletes are really no different from the rest of us and that we shouldn’t expect them to be – or we should expect to be disappointed.

After enduring the revelations about Armstrong and the rest of the rogues’ gallery of disgraced athletes, it’s easy to see how some people could start to think that way.

But that’s when we have to remind ourselves that Joe DiMaggio was alive and well when Paul Simon rhetorically asked what had become of the great baseball legend. Joe hadn’t left us, and his remarkable career record was still intact. What happened is that pop culture simply stopped recognizing the difference between authenticity and fakery and had begun to elevate deviance over decency.

And if anyone is wondering where the Joe DiMaggios of today have gone, I’d urge them to stop and consider the career of another baseball great, Mariano Rivera, who just last month announced his impending retirement.

It’s simply not possible to overstate Rivera’s talent – or his dignity and humility as a person.

If you are not familiar with him, you should be.

Rivera is, without question, the greatest closing pitcher in the history of baseball. He has clinched more games in the final innings and had more winning appearances in the playoffs than any pitcher in history. And those are just two of his many career records.

In fact, it would take a whole lot more than two episodes of Oprah to chronicle his accomplishments – both on and off the field – but “Mo,” as he is known to his fans, would make his goodbyes in less time than it takes for a commercial break.

That’s because Rivera is a quiet, decent and humble man who just happens to be an extraordinary athlete – and one who never forgot he played for a team and a game and not just for himself.

Case in point: For 18 seasons, Mo has worn No. 42 as a personal tribute to the most famous player to wear that number, the great Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball. At his retirement announcement, he said, “I carried the legacy of Mr. Jackie for all these years, and I tried to do my best to wear No. 42 and do it with class and honor.”

Second case in point: Rivera is also someone who sincerely believes his talents did not spring from his own ego but are, instead, a gift from God. On his pitching glove are the words “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,” a quote from a letter from Paul to the Philippians in the New Testament of the Bible.

No, great sports heroes who can and should be admired for their talent – as well as how they conduct their personal lives – have not gone away. You just have to know where to look for them.

Charlie Leonard lives in Aspen.


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