As Idols Fall, Will Clout Ebb?
For generations of Americans, there has been a non-stop message that sports stars are a beacon of light worth following. Gatorade commercials told us to "Be like Mike." Lyrics celebrated the golden era of "Willie, Mickey and the Duke." And Ronald Reagan never tired of being referred to as the football player he portrayed, "The Gipper."
But we started to reconsider whether that allegiance should be undying when O.J. Simpson became better known for answering to murder charges than for dashing through airports in Hertz ads. An earlier wake-up call came when Pete Rose's "Charlie Hustle" nickname took on new meaning because of his gambling.
Now, entering a new decade, glorifying sports figures as role models has never seemed more suspect.
Mentions of having the eye of the tiger generate snickers about Tiger Woods' adultery scandal. Mark McGwire's confession that he took steroids has shrunk the awe once held for his soaring home runs. Michael Vick's dogfighting crimes sickened a nation that suddenly was confronted with the gruesome aspects of an underground blood sport.
Female athletes also enter the conversation. Marion Jones was stripped of her Olympic track medals after admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs, and figure skater Ton ya Harding has become synonymous with villainy since playing a role in the assault on rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics.
In a recent USA TODAY/Gallup poll, 47 percent of adults said they considered Woods less of a role model since news of his extramarital affairs broke in November. However, nearly 66 percent say athletes will have more influence on young people in the decade to come.
Author Michael K. Bohn, who was director of the White House Situation Room during Reagan's presidency, said our shifting perspective about athletes as ideals doesn't mean America's obsession with sports will abate. His recent book, Heroes&Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports, chronicles how such sports legends as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange ushered in an era of athlete worship.
It's worth noting that the 1920s began with a nadir as low as any seen today, after the World Series had been purposely lost by the 1919 Chicago White Sox ("Black Sox").
"I think people still want a happy ending and they still want a hero to arise," Bohn said. "The only thing they love better than seeing someone kick the winning field goal is if the athlete breaks his leg halfway through the season and then comes back and kicks the winning field goal."
That optimism is shared by Scott Minto, director of the Sports Business MBA program at San Diego State University. He said his students, all hopeful of gaining sports-related careers, haven't lost sight of sports' upside amid recent negatives.
Minto points to former NBA player Alonzo Mourning being a significant fundraiser for Haiti relief and the role the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints played in buoying their community's spirits after Hurricane Katrina.
"This is a multibillion-dollar industry that probably can have more impact than just about anything else on a global level," Minto said. "The Saints' stadium, five @years ago, was hell on earth. They had the power to lift peoples' spirits. Nothing other than sports could do that."
Minto's students' projects have ranged from studying baseball programs in the impoverished Dominican Republic to working as volunteers at January's Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, where Woods' absence overshadowed the competition.
"You're also looking at a guy who's head of the Tiger Woods Foundation and raises millions and millions of dollars," Minto said. He added that the same benevolence applies to retired tennis star Andre Agassi, who recently admitted in his auto biography to using meth amphetamine.
"The athletes are going to get their DUIs and have their problems, just like politicians and just like actors," Minto said. "That will always be there. It's just a matter of taking the lumps and not lionizing them and thinking they are without flaws."
Expectations follow fame
That's easily understood by Stanley H. Teitelbaum, who cites about 200 examples of self-destructive behavior by athletes in his recent book, Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side: Sex, Drugs and Cover-Ups.
Teitelbaum, a practicing psychotherapist and faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, said sports stars need to realize the public is no longer uninformed or naive about what goes on after the competition ends.
"I think in the world of sports, there's a price to be paid for fame," Teitelbaum said. "We will applaud you, we will adore you, but the other side of the Faustian bargain is that your private life is really not private anymore. You have to be willing to sign on for that side as well."
One athlete who embraced that price of fame is Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
"I believe wholeheartedly that everything happens for a reason," the Super Bowl MVP said. "At times, God is going to put you in a position to wonder why this is happening to me or to us, and yet you know it's happening for a reason. It's there to make you stronger and to give the opportunity to accomplish something later on - and here we are."
Brees never shied from having the responsibility for the morale of New Orleans citizens heaped on his shoulders.
"It's a feeling that we have an opportunity to give them so much hope, lift their spirits and give them something they deserve," he said.
Katarina Witt, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, agrees that athletes should welcome the public's high expectations for character.
"I absolutely think that athletes should be role models," Witt said at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. "Being an athlete out there, yes, of course, you are a human being, too, and you will have a few mistakes, but I always wanted to be a role model for kids - to show them what it means to train hard, to become the best in one thing you do."
Teitelbaum attributes many of the problems associated with sports to what he calls "toxic athletes" who believe there won't be consequences for misdeeds.
Pro leagues are trying to change that. The NFL's player-conduct policy led to a one-season suspension for Adam "Pacman" Jones and also mandated that Vick convince Commissioner Roger Goodell he had atoned before returning to the field. In the NBA, Gilbert Arenas was suspended for 50 games for bringing guns into the Washington Wizards locker room.
But just as we kept listening to rock 'n' roll no matter how outrageous the behavior by performers, Teitelbaum doesn't expect we'll shun athletes in the coming decade.
"We the fans have created that kind of climate," Teitelbaum said. "It's what I call 'hero hunger.' It makes people feel better about themselves if they latch onto a hero who does well, and, conversely, if that hero fails, they feel worse about themselves. Our culture, I think, is moving more and more in that direction."
For families, he said, "What's important is how parents deal with their kids when their heroes stumble and become involved in one of these scandals. It becomes an opportunity to educate and convey the realities of the world and that there can be many sides of an individual."
James Steyer, CEO of the Common Sense Media organization, which offers advice on parenting, called the flood of negative sports news "an enormous issue" but doesn't expect it to stop.
"It's reality. The genie is out of the bottle, in terms of kids' exposure," Steyer said. "My 5-year-old son knows Tiger did something wrong. He just doesn't know what cheating on your wife is."
Athletes as endorsers
While the public clings to its sports stars and hopes for the best, so too, probably, will Corporate America.
Dismay about Woods' adultery has cost him endorsements, but the athlete as product pitchman isn't expected to disappear.
"Scandals are a problem, but I think it's undeniable that the strategy of using athlete endorsers is so effective that it won't change dramatically," said Anita Elberse, an associate professor in the marketing unit at Harvard Business School.
"Tiger Woods has created enormous value for the companies he's worked for over the years, and it's not clear to me that that value has been wiped out," Elberse said. "I haven't seen any reports that any of the companies had their sales hurt."
What will change, according to one public relations expert, is the process of selecting those endorsers.
"The older they are, the more you have to look through," said Mike Paul, president of MGP and Associates PR, whom BusinessWeek has referred to as "the Master of Disaster."
"You're looking at everything from their grades to the people they associate with, to how they treat women, to what is their marriage life like," Paul said.
But still, Paul adds, "There's a strong affinity to athletes. They're our heroes still, and when I look at what product to buy, a hero can still help me make that decision."
With sports fans forever anticipating dramatic rallies, that affinity for athletes means there's a chance that an entirely new perception could be coming for Woods in the decade ahead. Woods took a first step with his public apology last week.
"People want to know how this story ends," said Robbie Vorhaus, founder of the Vorhaus Communications company, which specializes in crisis PR. "They want to see how this hero returns to the normal world, and how he's changed. . . . We want to know that there's really somebody who has the ability to come back, and that no matter how down you are that you can come back."
That could make Woods a role model for all those athletes who used to be role models.