Commentary: We shouldn't blindly worship sports 'heroes'

Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton. (Sacramento Bee/MCT) MCT

Sports are one of the great joys of my life, but I never got the idolatry part of sports – the hero worship based on athletic success.

I've loved the personalities, the games and the traditions. Sportswriters like Jim Murray inspired me to pursue a career in writing.

When it looked like Sacramento was going to lose the Kings, my heart swelled at the photos posted on Facebook of moms and dads with their kids at the former Arco Arena. In some cases, aging parents have gone with their adult children to the old barn in Natomas so they could close a circle of life, a ritual of memories to mark the years.

The most cherished memories of my late father are of us at Candlestick Park, the Oakland Coliseum or in the front room of our old house in San Jose, huddled around our creaking Zenith – watching NBC's Game of the Week.

Dad died in September 2008 and a few weeks later, during the baseball playoffs, I picked up the phone to call him after a great game and was listening to the dial tone when it dawned on me that he was gone.

Don't tell me that sports are silly or trivial. They are not.

But they don't mean everything, either. The "heroes" of sports have never been heroes to me because dad taught us that people are people, no matter how famous or successful they are.

From an early age, I accepted that my favorite athletes – Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson – could be very flawed human beings.

I went to my first NFL game with the express purpose of seeing O.J. Simpson play. Can you imagine? We all know now what a false idol O.J. proved to be.

But it's easy to believe in false icons. We cheer for them. We vote for them. In the case of sexual predators within the Catholic Church, we took communion and moral guidance from clergy who enabled predators and, in some cases, tried to cover it all up.

Such betrayal always seems to find new applications.

Consider the events of the last week – the horrific revelations of child sexual abuse on the Penn State campus that caused the firing of Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in college football history.

It's a salacious story from the other side of the nation, but it captivates an international audience because it reveals how a belief in false icons created an atmosphere where children could be abused.

After 45 years as coach of Penn State, Paterno was considered a legend who built prestige and generated massive revenues for Penn State based on a winning football team.

He was also considered an honorable guide of young men who achieved excellence without cutting ethical corners, all over the span of nine U.S. presidencies.

According to a Pennsylvania grand jury report, Paterno's right-hand man was observed raping a young boy in the showers of Penn State's locker room in 2002.

The witness who remained silent was another cog, an assistant coach in Paterno's football machine, who took the information to Paterno. The football great chose not to notify the police or make sure anyone else did. The cog in Paterno's machine, Mike McQueary, rose through the ranks, while the coaching staff's secret was kept until last week.

Child rape allegedly continued with the silent complicity of a man known to "win with honor." When Paterno was fired, Penn State students rioted because their icon was toppled. Their identity as roaring fans of Nittany Lion success was stripped before their eyes. The child rapes were inconvenient impediments to the ritualistic worship of a football titan who won "the right way" and gave thousands a chance to identify with something successful and good and fun.

The Penn State rioters might as well have said: "Damn those raped kids! They stole our proud legacy as Penn State fans!"

From my living room in Sacramento, while thinking about past college protests over matters such as civil rights, I kept hearing a biblical passage in my mind: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."

As a journalist, the Penn State affair made me promise to myself not to write valentines to false idols or use my position to advocate for big-time sports as the be-all and end-all.

It's not.

A downtown arena to keep the Kings in Sacramento is a cause worth promoting. The Kings bring a lot of energy to Sacramento, and a downtown arena could revive a flagging central core of the state capital.

It could be a beautiful thing under the right circumstances – but only under the right circumstances. If the price is financial peril for Sacramento, it's not worth it.

We'll see. We'll hope for the best. But as we were reminded last week, we can't fall blindly for the sports hype. People get hurt.

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