Isn't it time we stopped turning every successful athlete into a role model? Who decreed that simply because someone can shoot a basketball or hit a backhand or throw a fastball better than 99% of the population, he or she is a better person than everyone else and therefore must set an example for millions of adoring youngsters so they don't grow up to be drug addicts or car thieves? An athlete has every right to capitalize on his stature as a role model if he chooses, and to appear on cereal boxes and soap commercials and Late Night with David Letter-man. But—how obvious it seems—we shouldn't pattern our lives after someone simply because of his talent or smile. Many athletes are worth emulating for the way they conduct themselves, others are surely not. If children are not being taught that athletes are human, just like their parents and neighbors, we had better start getting real.
Clearly, some observers view the athlete-as-role-model very seriously indeed. For example, the veteran New York sports columnist Dick Young has taken Dwight Gooden, the Mets' 22-year-old pitching star, severely to task for failing America's youth by testing positive for cocaine during spring training in March. Young has railed that "druggies" should be locked up in special concentration camps. No one would dispute that Gooden made a terrible mistake and disappointed a lot of fans, but did Gooden really belong on the pedestal from which Young toppled him? Last Friday, the day of Gooden's return to the Mets, the New York Post's back-page headline screamed STAND UP AND BOO above Young's column, which went on to say that the fans at Shea Stadium should boo Gooden's entrance "to let him know how society feels about the wrong he has done, about the damage he has committed to the millions of kids who worshipped him...."
The fact that 51,402 fans stood up and cheered Gooden, and continued to cheer him throughout the game, said a lot about Gooden, about Young and about human nature.
Not for a minute were those fans saying, here's a druggie who got away with it. They were saying, here's a young man who had a problem and is determined to straighten himself out. And maybe they were recognizing the fact that unlike pro athletes, most of us don't have to give an account of our actions to the press each and every day. Nor are we likely to bear the burden of "millions of kids" who worship us, whose hearts will be broken if we get in trouble. And if the pressure in our lives causes us to discard good sense and we fall to the temptation of drugs, our relatives and friends are probably not going to learn about it in the newspapers.
Dave Cowens, the former Boston Celtics center, refused to sign autographs, instead offering supplicants a lecture on the stupidity of adoring athletes. Cowens was embarrassed by the disproportionately high salary he made; he thought that it must be the reason some people seemed to believe that he was more important than a good teacher, a good mother or a good cab driver. When the pressure of playing basketball and living up to an inflated public image became too much for him, in 1976, he quit playing for a couple of months, had his Celtics paychecks stopped and went home to Kentucky to harvest Christmas trees.
There are people in Boston who have never forgiven Cowens for committing sport's cardinal sin: quitting. Yet if he had worked in the team's marketing department, or in the Boston public school system, or behind the bar at Cheers, his friends and coworkers would probably have wished the best for him and hoped for his happy and healthy return.
Cowens was a role model whether he wanted to be or not. But was he a bad role model? No, he was a good one. Other athletes have been vilified—Duane Thomas, the former Dallas Cowboy, for one—because they were expected to be symbols when all they wanted to be was athletes. Today we can't be certain that our athletes won't turn out to be drug abusers. Nor can we be certain that our children, husbands, wives, teachers and best friends won't. We have to learn to help them. Dick Young's strictures are not the answer.
Dwight Gooden, at the age of 22, with a $1.5 million-per-year salary, representing a city of insatiable sports nuts, lost his self-discipline. Whether he can permanently regain it is still in question. Yes, he did something wrong and yes, his team was hurt, but it is unfair for anyone to stick Gooden with eight million broken hearts.
Gooden was anything but a pathetic druggie when he threw bullets for 6⅖ innings in his 5-1 win over the Pirates on Friday night. And, to judge by all the cheering, it was amazing how quickly broken hearts can mend. If anyone deserved to be booed, it was those who don't believe in second chances or don't understand that athletes are no worse and no better than the rest of us.