National / Sports / January 13, 2010

An ugly new year

Oh, Tiger Woods. Perhaps the world’s most recognizable athlete — and certainly America’s — is ruined. He is taking an indefinite leave from golf, hoping to repair what’s left of his once-spotless reputation. There’s no need to repeat the sordid details of his many supposed affairs, so I’ll just leave it at that. Well, not quite. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his loss at the PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang — not Tiger’s best year.

And while Tiger wasn’t exactly on top of the world, he was still the best at his craft – something Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards once aspired to. Agent Zero, they called him. He was goofy, charismatic, took a lot of shots and didn’t give a damn if people called him selfish. From 2004-2007, he was arguably the league’s most prolific scorer, guiding a woeful franchise to four straight playoff appearances. Now? Arenas may be best known for pulling guns out of his locker to settle a gambling debt.

So that’s basketball and golf. Surely some baseball player must have admitted steroid use this week, right? Ah, yes, Mr. Mark McGwire. The first man to eclipse Roger Maris’ home run record, McGwire and Sammy Sosa were considered the undisputed saviors of post-strike baseball. Of course, there were suspicions. Acne appeared on his back, some writers raised questions about the bottle of Androstenedione in his locker, not to mention the fact that his body was, well, abnormal.

Anything else? I guess — a no-name safety for the Bucs tried to choke his wife. The Seahawks gave Pete Carroll a garbage truck full of money to turn around their feckless franchise. Oh, and Jayson Williams finally pleaded guilty for accidentally shooting his limousine driver all those years ago.

But what does all of this prove? Is our athletic culture in disrepair? Are athletes reckless and careless, skirting our laws — institutional and moral –— for the sake of no one but themselves? Well, I guess. But athletes are human beings too.

The moral outrage is warranted, don’t get me wrong, but there must be some acknowledgement of the human being’s tendency to make poor decisions. When Magic Johnson retired from basketball after acquiring HIV, sportswriters around the country were quick to hammer him for his promiscuity, refusing to acknowledge the pressures that come with being a star athlete.

While it isn’t too much to ask a professional athlete to honor his wife and/or wear a condom when having sex with random women, sportswriters should ask themselves a simple question: armed with the sort of superstardom awarded to guys like Magic Johnson or Tiger Woods, would they abstain? I would hope, but some of them, like some pro athletes, would surely make mistakes. They can certainly criticize, and that’s warranted, but an evaluation of our culture of hero-worship regarding professional athletes would be more meaningful, and honest.

And, while this has been covered at length in previous columns, I must harp on the issue of steroids in baseball. Given the choice between a life comprised of toiling away in the minor leagues or the life of a Major League Baseball player — where the minimum pay is ten times higher than what a normal minor league salary is — would they be able to resist the urge to use performance-enhancing drugs? Who knows? What’s clear is that it’s much easier for the public at large to pass judgment without putting themselves in an athlete’s shoes.

And that’s not to condone this behavior. Tiger Woods is an idiot, as is Gilbert Arenas and Mark McGwire and pretty much anyone else mentioned in this story — but they are still human beings. Their idiocy just plays out before our eyes.

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