People love their heroes. Especially their sports heroes. I mean, who didn't grow up with a Ken Griffey, Tony Hawk, or Mia Hamm poster in their room. And when we were feeling bad, we went and sat on our bed and stared at those faces, and longed to be just as strong, fast, or smart.
Michael Vick was one of the most popular football players in the world. His Atlanta Falcons jersey was the 6th-best selling in the league. His poster hung up on the walls of countless little kids, who wanted to escape the ghetto, just like he did. Vick was the face of a franchise, one of the most electric players in league history; a man with unlimited potential. In 2004 he signed the richest contract in NFL history.
Unfortunately for Vick, it was his shady upbringing that eventually caught up with him. In or around the summer of 2001, Vick teamed up with two childhood friends and started a dogfighting operation in the backyard of his Virginia home. The operation culminated in early 2007, when Vick and his accomplices allegedly killed 8 dogs that performed badly in fights.
Let me take you to the winter of 1998. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had just led baseball fans through the most exciting season in decades. Meanwhile, the best player in baseball, Barry Bonds, sat at home and wondered how he could receive such fame and adulation. He allegedly turned to steroids and quickly became the most proficient hitter in the history of Major League Baseball. He holds the all-time records for home runs in a career, home runs in a season, walks, and countless more.
When word broke of steroid use in baseball, all three, Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, were quick to feel the sting. They had betrayed their teams, the league, and, most importantly, their fans. Seldom has a player gone from so high to so low in a matter of six months, as happened to these three.
In times of dire need, people always look to their sports heroes. After 9/11, an entire city placed themselves on the backs of their team, the Yankees, and for perhaps the first time in history the Damn Yankees weren't the Damn Yankees, if just for a couple weeks. After Katrina, New Orleans looked to their Saints for an escape, and boy did they deliver.
After all, that's what sports are, right? An escape, for body and mind? After a long day at work, what do the majority of men do? They come home and turn on the game. After a fight with the parents, what does a troubled boy do? He takes his basketball to the park and shoots hoops, even if he's by himself.
These days we can't even go one week without hearing one of these stories. In the same week fashion designer Marc Ecko bought Barry Bonds's record-breaking 756th home run ball, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belicheck was fined $500,000 by the NFL after he was caught spying on opposing teams. This news came a week after Formula 1 racecar manufacturer McLaren was fined $100 million (yes, $100 million) for stealing rival manufacturer Ferrari's car blueprints. We truly have reached the age of cheating; of performance enhancing; of the "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying" attitude.
Who do we turn to now? We have always looked to our sports heroes to display the moral fiber we wished we had in ourselves. If we can't trust our sports heroes to be everything we want them to be, what then? The magic with sports is the ability to leave reality, if just for a moment, and pretend we're everything we wish we could be. What do we do now?