by Mike Chen on 10/30/09 at 01:46 PM ET
A few weeks ago, I heard a debate on XM Home Ice regarding the Hall-of-Fame worthiness of Theo Fleury. The discussion didn’t involve his numbers per se, but rather whether or not his battle with addictions immediately disqualified him from such an honor. The hosts acknowledged that Fleury’s issues were tied into horrible childhood abuses, and he didn’t have the proper outlets for dealing with them. Nonetheless, they generally felt that the Hall of Fame was the type of honor that shouldn’t be bestowed on people who’ve given into their personal demons—even when the context of what caused them is somewhat understandable.
I found this debate in my head revived with this week’s revelation that tennis great Andre Agassi used crystal meth and covered it up during a time when his personal and professional life were spiraling downward. Suddenly, critics were coming out to say that his entire legacy was tarnished, some even saying they couldn’t look at Agassi the same way.
Me? I tried to look at Agassi the same way I look back at Fleury—they’ve made choices that they’re not proud of, but they’re honest about it and they’ve grown from it. They weren’t cheating during their performances, so why should it take away from Agassi’s Grand Slam wins or Fleury’s career goal totals? They’re human, and they made human mistakes in their personal lives. I don’t think that should be terribly shocking. Even if their actions violated a league/association policy, that’s a suspension and a fine at most, not a giant asterisk next to their career accomplishments.
I’m sure this point can be debated and picked apart from every possible angle, but I’m of the mindset that as long as the substances in question don’t enhance performance, then any sort of honor should be based strictly on the person’s career in the sport—not their personal demons. That’s why I view these situations as different compared to something like the Barry Bonds fiasco.
Yes, you can subscribe to the opinion that athletes are supposed to be role models and any sort of honor they receive should be done with that perspective. The thing is, we’re looking at greatness in athletics, not some acknowledgment of strong moral fiber. The difference for me is that if an athlete uses performance-enhancing drugs, then they’re trying to cheat, not just (wrongly) deal with some sort of personal issues.
I think we forget that so many enshrined athletes that we embrace were far from saints. As we get further into an instant-information society, it becomes harder and harder to hide these things; alcoholism isn’t exactly new to NHL players, and something like Agassi’s confession would probably receive far less fanfare if, say, a mid-level Major League Baseball player admitted to it. (Semi-related to this, Keith Hernandez admitted to cocaine use and but he’s still one of my favorite Seinfeld guest stars of all time.) We all have issues, and some of us choose to deal with them in a responsible way and some of us make the wrong choice. At what point does it cross the line and tarnish their accomplishments? Why should we give musicians, actors, and politicians a pass that pro athletes don’t get?
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m condoning their behavior; both Fleury and Agassi could have made different choices in dealing with their past. But as long as they didn’t do something that tainted their in-game accomplishments, should it matter?
Maybe I’m cynical, but as much as I like an admire a pro athlete, I still realize that they’re people too. They have vices just like any one of us, and they choose to handle it based on their upbringing, the people they surround themselves with, and their own intelligence. Some tow the morality line better than others, just like if you took a sample of any population. They just have their choices scrutinized by the public and the media.
In the case of both Fleury and Agassi, I admire their openness and honesty. Some might say that they’re just trying to sell more books, but I have to think that neither of them necessarily need the money (especially Agassi). For Fleury, it’s probably been a cathartic process and something that he felt needed a definitive record; for Agassi, he’s always been a thoughtful and honest person, and I think he just wanted the truth out there, for better or worse. Should we look at their careers differently because they stepped on the wrong side of the moral line in their lives? This will sound cold, but I think ultimately we should remember that pro athletes are a product for our entertainment, at least when they’re on the field of play. Their accomplishments and talents during those few hours are put on display to entertain us, not educate us or lead us. It goes both ways; for those that stumble off the field during their career, the casual fan quickly forgets it if they produce results soon after (see: Bryant, Kobe). Heck, I think we’ve all known great players on our favorite teams that were total jerks off the ice. Does that diminish their results if they score 50 goals or help deliver a Stanley Cup?
I think Charles Barkley said it best in a commercial from the 1990s: “I am not a role model…Parents should be role models.”
(And for what it’s worth, I don’t think Fleury had the career consistency to be in the Hall of Fame.)
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