Viewpoint: Athletes aren't role models

It’s been a rough year for sports fans.

And not rough in the literal sense of sports competitions. Those have been great. The Super Bowl was a nail-biter, the Olympics (though a little time-delayed) were wildly entertaining, and Lebron James is setting the new bar for what Zeus would probably look like if he came to Earth.

For sports fans, however, faith in our professional athletes has been a little shaken — and not to the regular level of anticipation surrounding the knowledge that most professional athletes are young, single guys, a population known more for impulsivity than reasonable decision-making skills. The world is used to hearing stories about running backs getting in bar fights, or shortstops criticizing their coaches in front of the media, or even (not to minimize the seriousness of this crime) the occasional DUI.

But this year, being a sports fan has been a little heartbreaking. The idols keep falling, and they’re falling from previously unseen heights. A wise man once said that the “only jersey (of a pro athlete) you should ever put on is either your own, or a dead guy’s. Everyone else still has the potential to be disappointing.”

Consider, first, the example of Lance Armstrong. Vaunted in our society as a determined, inspirational warrior, Armstrong stood as the beacon of recovery for all cancer survivors. How many other people could not only beat testicular cancer, but come back and become a professional road-racing cyclist and, on top of that, win the Tour de France — arguably the most difficult feat in sports — seven times between the years of 1999 and 2005, all while starting one of the most recognizable support foundations for fighting cancer?

Of course, everyone knows where his story ended up. Accused of steroid use for many years, Armstrong sought out and humiliated all of his accusers, inflicting financial damage on many of them. Eventually, enough information about his doping activities managed to trickle out into the public, and he had no choice but to face the music. Millions of Livestrong fans across the world were forced to ask themselves whether or not they should keep that little yellow wristband.

And what about Manti Te’o, who is either a deft liar or incredibly naive? And the devastating case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African “blade runner” (the man who qualified to run in the London Olympics despite having legs that ended just below the knees) who inspired viewers this summer, only to be taken into custody for accusations of shooting his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, four times?

It is our fault, as the consuming public, for seeing these paragons of human athleticism as anything more than, well, paragons of human athleticism. It’s easy to confuse them for role models, but really, they are merely experts in their field. That’s why it is up to us, as responsible consumers of sports and other media, to distinguish between heroes, idols and exemplars from people who are really good at putting a ball through a hoop.