When sports figures transcend the painted bounds of the field, rink, or court, they take on a responsibility to an audience beyond the realm of sport alone. The transcendental athlete is someone who connects with and inspires fans and non-fans alike, through efforts to better humanity outside of sport, while being so dominant on the field of play that the person is immortalized by fans, on a level unattainable by even the good players.
Such transcendence is a virtue of sport. The ascendency begins most often with athletic prowess; a great gift of ability honed through determination, and a grit built by years of sweaty toil to push beyond the athletic achievements of a sportspersons peers. The transcendent figure must then prove his or her worthiness of greatness by staying at the top of the game for a number of unparticular moments until classification among the greats of the sport. Such a person is raised to the ranks of immortality by the impossibility with which us fans view the achievements of a transcendent star.
Yet, the media seek to find the answers that prove even stars fall, and almost inevitably the immortal is made human again, and the adoring public fight over how best to pass judgment on the once revered career of the once clandestine sportsperson. We revel in the knowledge that, at their core, these superstars are subject to the same vices as us, and we like to watch them plummet, even as we abhor the loss of another moral role model.
This summer saw a rather startling regularity with which we witnessed celebrated sports figures fall from grace. Is such a reversal of moral good-fortune enough reason to stop believing in their athletic achievements? Is placing an asterisk by milestones and achievements now an accepted fate of the sporting culture we find ourselves in?
Perhaps among the most transcendent of athletes, Lance Armstrong fell with a resounding thud which shook the stardust from the eyes of millions of people worldwide. A man who had been the epitome of overcoming adversity on the way to athletic greatness, had abruptly quit in the face of it. The truth of the matter is that the doping allegations levelled against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) do not take away the fact that his fight against testicular cancer inspired countless others fighting the insidious disease in ways unimaginable.
The real issue is not that Armstrong will be stripped of his previously record seven Tour de France championships, or that he is now relegated to the ranks of most other cyclists in a sport fraught with steroid use. The issue is not that Armstrong might have lost the court battle, it is that he chose not to fight at all. That, more than anything else sticks in the craw of people who looked to him as an example of unrelenting determination, and the impossibility of quitting in fighting hardship. Perhaps Armstrong was simply tired of fighting, perhaps he knew there was no hope of clearing his name, and more worrisome, perhaps there was a darker secret which he did not want to see the light in a contentious court battle. Whatever the reason, Armstrong, who represented a never say die attitude for millions, quit in a vague manner, and we lost another immortal.
Earlier in the year, but with ostensibly more hand-wringing, was the crashing to earth of a legend of the gridiron, a revered grandfather to the game of college football – the fall of Joe Paterno. Here is a man who meant everything to the program he practically raised from the ground, and yet his bronze likeness was removed from outside Penn State’s stadium after he was found to have harboured a pedophile – his former assistant James Sandusky. Many a fan has at one time or another lamented the direction modern sports are headed, with overpaid, underperforming stars who possess a moral compass that will not point north. The precipitous decline of JoPa’s once sterling legacy was made all the more distasteful because he was an ancient of the game – one of the good ol’ boys of football, who did things the right way, and instilled ethical values in his athletes ahead of extolling footballing virtues. Paterno made a costly mistake, and had to suffer the indignity of passing away knowing that his life and legacy had collapsed around him, and we lost an immortal.
Paterno’s was a legacy long built, and quickly diminished. In stark contrast, the rise and subsequent fall of Melky Cabrera in the space of half a season, was so tragically comical I am sure Shakespeare would have written odes about it. The outfielder had risen from the ranks of ‘not that Cabrera’ (referring to the Tigers star Miguel) to being named Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game Most Valuable Player. Soon after came the 50 game suspension for the use of performance enhancing drugs, and a miserable attempt to cover it up which could lead to a longer time-out for a player who had seemingly only just found his way.
From steroids to strikes, the good news kept rolling for sports haters as a major league battle is shaping up in the National Hockey League, between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners, splitting hairs over the sharing of revenue scalped from the bank accounts of hard working families. If this seems a remarkably deja vu story, it is. Just seven years ago the entire NHL season was lost due to the same boardroom battle that is going on now, only this time I suspect the fans will be less willing to come rushing back to the outstretched palms of Gary Bettman and co.
This summer saw a sports landscape with increasingly shifting terrain for those of us who may look to sports figures for a moral ground to stand on.
The falls of Armstrong and Paterno in the same year are surely cause to raise the white flag and take stock of who we, as fans, and as consumers of moral guidance, place our trust in. That is not to say that it was ever wrong to have been inspired by these men, to have believed in their athletic brilliance and human compassion. It does however, raise questions whether we ought to in the future.
In today’s sporting reality, it is best to get back to the roots of athletic achievement, and as a Ryerson fan and student, there has never been a more exciting time to invest in the Rams. The opening of the Gardens is in its own way a transcendent star for the downtown community – it has already inspired the athletes who call it home, but it has reached beyond the sporting realm to unify a campus and community in ways unprecedented, and unimaginable before. So support the blue and gold, because they play for the love of the game not the multi-year contracts, and they compete because of a pride in themselves and their school. Best of all they are not immortal – they have to get up for class just like the rest of us. Only difference is maybe they ran the court last night, while we cheered from the stands.