Sports became a game of good vs. evil somewhere along the line. Maybe it was around the time player arrests began to feel like an official statistical category, or when “PEDs” entered the lexicon as an acronym for cheating. Whatever it meant to be an athlete got tarnished and tangled in morality. What used to be our escape from real life — sports — became just a reflection of it, and one that too often made us want to look away.
It sure didn’t start with Aaron Hernandez, the NFL ex-Patriot charged with murder. He is just the latest to play the face of the beast, an evolving role. Who will be next? And when?
Oscar Pistorius went from genuine hero to accused killer, and Lance Armstrong from survivor and philanthropist to liar and fraud. Barry Bonds attached a scarlet asterisk to baseball’s greatest record, corroding some of the soul of America’s Pastime, and some of our own faith and naivete.
Some of the greatest athletes of recent generations - Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson, Lawrence Taylor, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Michael Irvin, Marion Jones, Dwight Gooden, Ray Lewis, Darryl Strawberry, Mike Tyson, Pete Rose, Dennis Rodman, Mike Vick, on and on - have slogged through a scatter of scandals.
Tonya Harding, Rae Carruth, Jayson Williams, Ken Caminiti, Matt Jones, Plaxico Burress … It sometimes feels as if shame is a bottomless well, and that athletes are a long line of lemmings waiting to step in and fall into the deep dark.
Giants linebacker Dan Connor was arrested over the weekend at the Philadelphia airport for having a switchblade in his luggage. Ho hum. How quaint. Is that even newsworthy? When it was the 34th current or former NFL player arrested just since the Super Bowl? When Hernandez, of an alleged crime right out of The Sopranos , leads that pathetic parade?
It can be hard to be a sports fan in general, to feel disenchanted, disenfranchised. To see your heroes exposed.
That is why we look for the good, and root for it, harder than ever.
The good guys and good stories in sports — they are the antidotes, the faith healers. What they do feels better than ever because they are the needed Rx against that sad gamut of steroids and crime.
The good guys and the good stories help remind us that “athlete” and “sports” are not the bad words they have too often come to be. The good guys and good stories polish those words a little bit.
These thoughts hit me hard, twice, over the weekend, once in my own backyard, with Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, and once across the world, with tennis player Andy Murray.
Sports needed this.
It was medicinal.
Fernandez, 20, a baby even for a rookie, made the National League All-Star team Saturday. Maybe it’s a Miami thing, but I think anybody who escapes Cuba’s tyranny for America’s promise as a teenager, on his fourth try, rates as heroic for that vision, that resolve. If Fernandez had done that and was today just some hard-working 20-year-old dishwasher we never heard of, he would be the same kind of heroic.
But what were the odds that kid would throw a blur-speed fastball, a knee-buckling breaking ball and become one of the youngest All-Stars in history?
That’s a Miami story but also an American story. The palette just happened to be baseball, and sports needed it.
One day later, on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon in England, Murray became the first British man in 77 years to win tennis’ grandest prize. All over Great Britain, the people erupted with swooning joy. England had a new king.
I claim only the most distant partial line of English blood and am not an avid watcher of tennis but found myself mesmerized, and emotional, as I watched one athlete ascend to his mountaintop while carrying an entire kingdom on his shoulders.
You saw the effect it had on one country, one people, and you were reminded, again, of the good power of sports. It draws together and uplifts. What brings goosebumps and make eyes well — that is the good power of sports.
We felt it just a few weeks ago in South Florida with the Heat’s championship parade. We saw how sports can dissolve walls and provide strangers the ultimate common bond.
Sunday we saw one man do that, not for a city but for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
That’s a British story, but also a human story. The palette just happened to be tennis, and sports needed it.
In sports’ broad tug of good and evil, it was a good weekend for the good, and we needed it.
We don’t know his name yet, but someone is waiting to replace Aaron Hernandez at the front of the parade of the damned, the next rich, charmed athlete to make us shake our heads about the stupidity, gall and waste.
Keep the faith, though. Because there are more Jose Fernandezes and Andy Murrays waiting, too, more good stories to bring us joy and medicine, and remind us all over again why we love sports, despite it all.
That good parade stretches even longer than the other one, and it always will.