Pulling on Superman’s Cape: A Brief Perspective of Sports Heroes in a Modern World

Once upon a time, sports were a metaphor for the strength of the human spirit; the tenuous connection between human and myth brought to life when the cameras rolled – in the modern age. The hero’s journey begins in obscurity, and it is the rise to fame – to prestige – that comes to define how we see them; it is in actions tempered by adversity and the opposing forces in their lives, on and off the court.We have lived long enough to see the death of the sports hero.

No longer is the player who puts on the bold colors of a hometown team a hero, but rather a clever con to the average sports fan. Cynicism aside, where to do we go from here? Strikes have become less about the love of the game and more about shouting matches between players and owners for the shares in a billion-dollar enterprise. When we talk about the pillars of the game in this era, we talk about individual players, not the teams they played for. Every player who can manage to carry a team a few games is ready to look for greener pastures, to play a market flooded with politics and consumerism. The real question becomes: What does it take to be a sports hero? When I think back to the posters I had on my wall, I am reminded of the players who transcended the game.

Let’s keep this to one sport, as I could very easily become highly tangential and follow a course through every major professional sport – with varying degrees of deviation from the mysticism of a sports hero. Basketball has always had an appeal to the average sports consumer who, if they wished, could set up a court in their backyard or beneath the rolling door of their garage.

Legends have played the game. Some – like Jerry West and Michael Jordan – have been immortalized on the memorabilia passed down through the canon of sports discourse. What a player does on and off the court determines the level to which we should respect and talk about them. In the modern area, the notion of the greatest to play the game has become a purely statistical question, and not a qualitative assessment of what a player has given to the game. When we discuss where a player as physically gifted as Lebron James is in the halls of the mighty basketball gods, we are not all asking the same questions. Statistically, his average points, rebounds, and assists over the course of his career are astounding – easily placing him among the greatest if we go by the numbers. His PER (Player Efficiency Rating) this season alone borders on the incredible. Taking another superstar of this generation into consideration, Kobe Bryant, we see a similar pattern of incredible numbers and statistical outliers. There is something to be said about the skills of each player, their strengths and weaknesses. But when considering both of these men, we wonder about some of the qualitative aspects of the game in lieu of the numbers they put up. What is truly the difference between these two men in terms of their place among the greats?

Leadership: to me the glaring difference between the two men is leading teams through a season, navigating the ups-and-downs, and being the type of player that is needed. This is not to say that James has not done this, but he certainly cannot claim the same level of authority and je nais se qua on the field that Bryant has exuded his entire career – most notably the two titles runs during the post-Shaq years.

A sports hero is more than a mechanized entity capable of putting up astronomical numbers. On any given night, a player can channel one of the greats and perform at a level that appears otherworldly. But putting any one of those nights in perspective is important in understanding how one becomes a sports legend, and to a greater extent, a sports hero. Being able to do it one night, or one year, is not the same as playing the game with heart. There was a shift somewhere – if you were to ask my father’s generation, it was televising games – that replaced heroes of the game, those men and women of the sport who put everything on the line, with iconic statues like the Colossus of Rhodes. A hero of the game rises up when others might stay down, stands and battles when others might linger behind.

As we watched the madness of the Dwight Howard saga, which has in many ways sullied the otherwise superhero-like veneer of arguably the best center in the league, we are struck by a simple question: What does the game mean to this generation’s players? Calling for a coach’s dismissal and then holding a team hostage as he negotiates with larger markets certainly makes Lebron James’ ill-fated Decision seem less of an anomaly among the modern superstar.

There is something to be said of the child who as posters of sports icons on their walls, and what those giants of the game mean to them. Is it the case that they want to exude the same strength of character, the pioneering spirit that makes them transcend the game and inspire us to be better people? Or is that we want the same money, access, and prestige awarded with being immortalized so brazenly on the white plaster of a Midwestern bedroom? How do we reconcile heroism and the iconoclastic nature of the modern sports figure? Are we to blame the game, and not the player, as we so glibly comment in self-defense?

Unfortunately, we now only hear the negative aspects of a player’s life: dogfighting, murder, attempted rape, gun possession. The 2011-2012 regular season will be remembered for two things: the truncated, lockout-induced season and the vicious elbow Metta World Peace, the player formerly known as Ron Artest, visited upon an unsuspecting James Harden, making us forget all of the positive things he had done to distance himself from his previous image. We wonder, as intellectually honest people, if the seven-game suspension will be enough to deter this kind of behavior, but a question of whether or not the impetus for such a short suspension is an appeal to higher ratings for another possible altercation on the court is certainly forefront in my mind.

When we compare Michael Jordan, the player, to Michael Jordan, the owner, we are struck by the reality of possibility the greatest player to every don a basketball jersey being associated with the worst record in the league. In the legacy of the greatest basketball player ever, there is now an asterisk beside his name: the worst regular season record of any team as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and being the type of owner to hide behind yes-men and being responsible for the destruction of a culture that values being a team. Juxtapose this with the heir apparent for Jordan’s crown – Kobe Bryant – sitting out the last game of regular season, and allowing Kevin Durant to assume the scoring title for the season. If the selfishness of this season was not egregious enough, we have Amar’e Stoudemire punching a pane of glass after a loss in Miami. Are either of these the actions of the competitive titans we ascribe them to be in the annals of NBA history, or is a sad statement on the power of sports culture at large? Are we to blame of culture of sports that supports a cookie cutter factory of producing spotlight stars that fill stats sheets and highlight reels? Can we really blame that on players who simply want to make the best possible living with the skill set they are most adept with? Do guys like Jeremy Lin – steeped in hard luck stories and meteoric rises – present the greatest opportunity to revive heroism in sports?

I think the answer is much simpler than that. We often look externally for answers to the problems of our lives, and this problem of heroism in the modern sports figure is no different. The athlete does not have an obligation to be a hero, but rather chooses to be perceived one way or another based on the manner with which fans reinforce their behavior. We want to see more offense and less defense; we want more dunks than lay-ups. Is it any real surprise that vaulting over a Kia represents a shining moment in sports history when its value is traded so highly among fans? If we want to see a game where teams don’t throw in the towel at the end of the season to get a higher draft pick, then we need to demand it. Don’t like players who use their status to influence the trajectory of the game, then don’t support those athletes – invest your money in someone else. Heroes carry with them the dreams and hopes of those who aspire to be great. They are often lost in the wilderness and through the context of their lives find what it takes to be great, to be a hero. We have to want to be better, and we have to demand more of the sports we love and the men and women who play the game. We must help them in their journey. We must start looking for heroes once more.

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