I have always been drawn to the sporting world, especially professional sports. There is something so fantastical about seeing superhuman feats achieved on a nearly daily basis. Those feats are what we all crave as sports fans, and they are what draws 14 million people to watch a baseball game on a Friday night.
However, this fascination with superhuman abilities can also put some metaphorical blinders on our eyes, blinding us from the reality that these athletes, despite performing acts that many of us could only dream of, are still mortal. They have faults. They make mistakes, and they’re usually some pretty big mistakes.
My fascination with sports as a kid drew me to the most incredible league in the world, the National Basketball Association. With all due respect to NFL and MLB players, pro basketball players regularly perform in ways that you or I could never imagine. As opposed to throwing, catching or hitting, these men fly through the air with supreme coordination and grace.
My favorite player was Penny Hardaway. Hardaway played like Magic Johnson with a mean streak. His combination with Shaquille O’Neal on the ’90s Orlando Magic teams inspired a sense of wonderment in me. I loved that team. In the infancy stages of video games, they were the only team I wanted to play with. When NBC Sports showed basketball games, I was either watching the Jordan Bulls or the Magic. I much preferred the Magic because of Penny’s more relaxed demeanor and the ease with which he performed at a high level.
I grew up idolizing Penny, and although injuries derailed what would have been an all-time great career, I still continued to follow him from the Magic, to the Suns, to the Knicks. I had every incarnation of a Penny Hardaway jersey imaginable. (Side note: my favorite was the black Magic jersey with white pinstripes.) No. 1 in your programs, No. 1 in your hearts.
Most of that changed on a December morning in 2000. I was downstairs, getting ready for school. My dad, as usual, was watching the previous night’s Sportscenter when I saw Penny’s face pop up on an over-the-shoulder graphic. As I listened intently, the anchor described that Penny had been charges with domestic abuse.
For a 10-year old kid, this was crushing. I felt like I knew this guy, although in reality, I had just been so taken by his athletic feats that I failed to realize the humanity in him. Over the course of the next few years as media coverage expanded and the Internet grew to a state where anyone’s indiscretions can be seen for the right price, the Santa Clause-like rose colored glasses that I had previously used to watch sports fell to the side.
It’s perfectly fine to idolize a sports figure, but only do so with that caveat in mind. Athletes and coaches are just like everybody else. In fact, the fame and monetary compensation that comes with such talent is often a burden on their personal lives, making them more susceptible to acts of deviancy.
I will never forget what I saw Penny do on the basketball court. Those games, passes and shots will forever have special place in my mind, but Penny’s personal situation is something to which I owe an even greater debt. This is what opened my eyes to the reality of sports, and I began to look to others as role models. I began to read about Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, two men who had indiscretions of their own, but I was able to admire for certain aspects of their work.
This is why it’s important to be able to idolize people who have done great deeds for those deeds alone. Everybody’s human, and if you pretend that certain people are not, they will never fail to disappoint you.