There is a lot of talk of heroes these days. The thing about heroes is, it’s very easy to admire them for one aspect of their lives, and completely ignore other aspects that don’t fit the narrative we desire.
My dad was a huge fan of Babe Ruth in his time. Living in small-town Wisconsin, it wasn’t often that he could get to a baseball game to see the Bambino in action live, though often — if the weather was right — he could listen to game on AM radio. Babe Ruth also broke my dad’s heart. The one time dad had a chance to get an autograph he held out his scorecard for the Babe to sign. As my dad tells it, “Sorry kid, I only sign autograph books,” was the reply the Babe gave when he saw dad’s scorecard held out. Babe Ruth’s life has been fairly well documented as one of the early sports heroes in the United States, and there is much to find wanting for admirable qualities in his personal life. Still, he is admired by millions for his prodigious baseball skills.
I find the worshipful attitude towards military service troubling. It echoes the attitudes of political regimes that absolutely should not be respected. More troubling still is the way our former service members are treated by national decision-makers: inevitably, when health problems they acquired as a direct result of their service begin to plague them, the government has a nasty habit of pretending that the responsibility to care for injured service members is not theirs. This hypocrisy is staggering to me, and makes me that much more dubious of demands that we “honor our veterans.” Apparently they are heroes only as long as they require nothing more than discount auto insurance or half-price meals at inexpensive restaurants in exchange for their sacrifice.
Another sports figure in the United States is former basketball great Charles Barkley. Barkley is famous for saying about himself “I am not a role model,” and the fact that he made this declaration is remarkable. For one thing, having the kind of worshipful treatment day in and day out that professional athletes have in the US must be addicting. Special treatment, fawning attitudes and unprecedented privilege are things that pro athletes have enjoyed, and it’s easy to get used to this kind of special treatment — not only enjoying it, but expecting it. For another, who wouldn’t want youngsters looking up to you as someone they hope to emulate later in life? That Barkley said what he did means he is well aware of his own failings, and it suggests that he doesn’t buy into the reverence attached to sports figures like himself. Those are both admirable qualities: despite what he said, I think Sir Charles is a decent role-model on these points alone. Ironically, his declaration makes him more fit to be a role model than most.
Having heroes can be heartbreaking, especially in this age when character flaws are more visible to everyone, and privacy is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. When those heroes fall from grace in a scandal-du-jour, they only rarely salvage their reputation in the eyes of their fans and admirers. There are still plenty of heroes in the world, but we must acknowledge that they, too, are human, and have the same types of failings and problems everyone else has. We can admire their skills, their personal qualities, their courage, and their political activism, but we have to remember to take the bad with the good, and treat them as human beings rather than gods on high.