Lance Armstrong, Stan Musial, and the Death of Heroes

There are no more heroes.  That was the line I read last week, and I have been chewing on it since.  It was written during a very strange week in sports, where Lance Armstrong “confessed” to using performance enhancing drugs, and Manti Te’o was discovered to be the victim (participant?) of a strange, odd hoax.

The week before last was also interesting, because no baseball players were elected into the Hall of Fame, thanks to the stain and strain steroids have exacted on the sport in the last two decades.

This last week ended with the death of Stan Musial.  His death added a new dimension to the opening line, which did not have Musial in mind when it was penned.  It became more poignant to me after I read Musial’s obituary on Sunday.  There are no more heroes.

This begged the question in my mind, ‘what makes a person a hero?’  I decided I had to narrow the conversation down to the sports world, because that was the context within which the initial statement was written.  I came up with what I felt was a simple, and hopefully complete enough, definition of a hero.  First, we define a sports hero as one who achieves an elite status in their profession.  That could be done over the course of a career, or in some cases, in one game or contest (especially if it is for a championship). Second, a hero is expected to have at least a minimum level of character, integrity, or honor.  They must be somebody who kids can look up to, and emulate.  Third, a hero must be someone who overcomes a great challenge, or sacrifices themselves for a cause or other people.

This takes me to Lance Armstrong.  We considered Armstrong a hero, because he competed in a sport rife with cheating, and we were told he was the lone clean rider, and his competitive spirit was what led him to be the greatest cyclist who ever lived.  On top of that, he had beaten cancer, and was using his fame to further the fight against the disease.  Heroic, noble, except it was all lies.  The money he has helped give to cancer research is all very real, but Lance is a liar.  What I find most disturbing about Lance Armstrong is not that he lied about cheating for 15+ years, but that he ruthlessly ruined people’s lives who were telling the truth all along.  There is an element of evil in his story, and it is scary.

With the loss of Armstrong as a hero, who do we have left?  I could argue nobody.  At least nobody who is actively participating in a sport.  We have former athletes who I would easily consider heroes, but I really cannot find a current athlete who meets the definition.  Why? Let me explain.

First, we have too much media scrutiny.  That is not an indictment on the media, but rather an indictment on our collective desire for constant drama in this country.  We love dirt, and we will stop at nothing to find dirt on people.  The media is only giving us what we want.  A by-product of this constant media attention is that we have created a culture where athletes are now attention seeking.  This is the opposite of someone like Musial, who is often described as ‘humble’.  Athletes used to focus on doing their job as best they could.  Now they look for the cameras so they can give their scripted, attention seeking statements.  This is not attractive, nor heroic.

Let’s go back to the 1940s, when Stan Musial was the top National League outfielder of his generation.  Musial was leading his Cardinal teams to four World Series in five years.  His teams won three of those contests.  In 1948, Musial was one home run shy of the triple crown.  He won seven batting titles in his career, and when he finally retired, he had amassed a .331 batting average, on 3,630 hits, which was the National League record until Pete Rose later broke it.  This man was a hitting machine.  The media only covered his baseball career, however.  His private life was off limits.  It was a different time, and I think people would rather imagine that Stan Musial was the kind of guy they wanted their daughter to bring home, than find out he had demons in his closet.  Fortunately (and sadly, because it should not need to be mentioned), Musial’s AP obituary stated that he was “scandal-free” in his playing days.  This now makes him the exception.

The media scrutiny we see today was not at a very high level when Mickey Mantle played either.  His alcoholism and marital infidelity were not topics the press felt the need to report.  Again, it was a different time, without smart phones, tablets, or even digital cameras.  A drunk Mantle out with a strange woman was not going to be on anybody’s Facebook page in the morning.  Fans were shocked to hear of his personal struggles when they came out in full.  Compare that to Josh Hamilton today, whose alcohol and drug issues have been exceedingly widely reported.  I am not saying that watching Josh Hamilton work on overcoming his struggles is not an inspiration, or heroic in a sense, but I am saying that he gets scrutinized, perhaps unfairly, more than prior generations have been scrutinized.  It was easier for us to call someone a hero when we did not know how human they actually were.  That is no longer the case.

The second reason I think we struggle to find heroes today is that professional athletes make way too much money.  This making of money invites an element of greed into the equation, which is not a heroic element.  Looking back at Stan Musial, he made good money as a ballplayer in his day, but nothing approaching the outlandish salaries of this day and age.  His highest salary, converted into today’s dollars, would be worth approximately $500,000 – $600,000 per year, and he is one of the best hitters who ever lived.  Today, that amount is below the league average.  Musial played his whole career under the Reserve Clause, which was not abolished until after the 1975 season.  This clause meant that Musial could either play for the Cardinals for what they would pay him, or go home.  Don’t get me wrong, Musial was not starving to death, and nobody felt sorry for him at the time for only making $80,000 to $100,000 per year.  Still, he did not have to face the choice of chasing the money or staying with the home team.

In 2012, Albert Pujols began playing for the Anaheim Angels.  This was after 11 seasons with the Cardinals where he earned legendary status, helping St. Louis win two World Series, while he personally earned the Rookie of the Year award, and three MVP awards. Many Cardinals fans turned on Pujols in 2012 because he turned down a 10 year, $210 million contract to stay with St. Louis to go to Anaheim for $254 million.  This forces the average fan to ask what, honestly, is the difference between two ungodly sums of money? Unfortunately, the answer we are forced to give is greed.

In his 11 seasons with St. Louis, Pujols established himself as the best hitter in all of baseball.  Nobody else was even considered close.  He also impressed people with his humility, and integrity.  He is a player who claims to play the game clean, and is very critical of those who use performance enhancing drugs to improve their stats.  In addition, he has set up a foundation which supports people with Down Syndrome, other disabilities, and those in poverty, particularly in the Dominican Republic.  This all makes Albert Pujols a hero in the minds or many people.  Then he turns down the opportunity to finish his career in St. Louis, so he can earn a little more money elsewhere.  This apparent greed leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of too many fans, and it reminds us that there are no more heroes.

One last reason I have as to why we have no heroes in athletics these days is that we cannot find athletes who overcome a great obstacle or sacrifice themselves for a cause or for others.  Let’s talk again about Stan Musial.  In 1945, Musial went into the US Navy to help defend our country against the Japanese.  He lost a year of playing baseball, while in the prime of his life to fight in World War II.  This is heroic.  Granted, Musial was never placed on the front lines, so he was never seriously placed in harm’s way.  In fact, only two baseball players were killed in action during the war – Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill. Even in saying that, I don’t want to discount what so many baseball players contributed to the war effort.  First, they spent time in a hostile, foreign country, away from their families, and there was no guarantee that they would not be injured, wounded or killed.  Second, the morale boost given by the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, or Bob Feller to their fellow countrymen was exceedingly important to the war effort.  This was a real sacrifice.  It made a whole generation of athletes into heroes.

Now, name me a professional athlete who was fought for their country in the last two decades.  The obvious person who gets mentioned is Pat Tillman.  Pat Tillman is a hero, without question.  Now, name me another professional athlete who left behind an athletic career for any amount of time to serve their country?  The next closest name is David Robinson.  After being drafted in 1987, Robinson postponed his NBA career for two years to finish out his active duty commitment to the US Navy.  This is admirable, and even heroic when you consider the amount of money Robinson left on the table to make this sacrifice, given he was one of the greatest centers who ever played.  If that weren’t enough, Robinson is widely considered to have very high integrity, and he has given over $10 million of his personal fortune to found a school, the Carver Academy, among other charitable endeavors.  David Robinson is somebody to look up to, and not just because he is seven feet tall.

Does every professional athlete need to serve their country to be considered a hero? Absolutely not.  Muhammad Ali is a hero for not fighting for his country.  A man of deep religious faith, Ali lost four years of his boxing career at the time when his skills had peaked, to stand up for his personal beliefs, defying the US Government, and not reporting for the Vietnam draft.  This was a very costly sacrifice.  Ali was publicly shamed by the government, and many in the media and populace.  He was also stripped of his heavyweight titles. Standing up for his principles in the face of this backlash, and at the cost of his own ability to earn a paycheck makes Ali a hero.  He also happens to be the greatest heavyweight fighter to ever live.  And he continues to live his life with great integrity.

Another hero is Roberto Clemente, who lost his life trying to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua.  A legendary athlete, and one who, because of his stature, did not have to get on the plane carrying the supplies to Nicaragua.  Clemente chose to go, because he wanted to make sure the people who needed the supplies the most received them.  He died when his plane, too heavy from the amount of supplies on it, went down in the Caribbean.  That is sacrifice.

Perhaps the person I admire the most as a hero is Jackie Robinson.  He carried the hopes of an entire race of people on his shoulders, while having the discipline to keep his own cool when goaded, spiked, thrown at, cussed at, and derided by anybody and everybody in baseball during 1947.  Not only did Robinson withstand the onslaught of others, he performed at a very high level, and changed the way the game was played, while also changing who played the game.  He is a hero.  I wish there were a larger term to apply to Jackie Robinson, because his heroics cannot be understated.

Where are our heroes today?  Is it possible to be a hero today?  It seems now that in light of Lance Armstrong and Major League Baseball, we find ourselves cynical in the face of those who appear to play by the rules, excel at their sport, and bring good to a cause.  We feel it is only a matter of time before a story breaks, and we find find ourselves in the midst of a scandal, and another person we admired gets placed with all the rest.

Or, we follow a player who does everything right, leads our favorite team to a championship, gets involved in the community and pours money into a great cause, only to break our hearts by leaving our team for another team who will pay them more.  Money will always be a reason a hero falls from grace when athletes make over $20 million per year, and only want more, while we, the fans, are making ends meet.

Last, we just don’t see sacrifice in our athletes anymore.  Many athletes give to charity, or start foundations with the intent to give back.  This is good, but they should do this, because they are making millions upon millions of dollars per year.  They have a responsibility to give back – this is not something that should be considered a sacrifice any more, but a minimal expectation.  My issue is that athletes no longer give in a costly fashion any more.  We thought Lance Armstrong was on to something with this Live Strong Foundation, and he really did do a lot of good.  Still, we have a bitter taste in our mouths, because the ends just don’t justify the means.  You cannot build a sustainable kingdom using the devil’s tools.

There are no more heroes.  Is there any hope that one day we will have another hero?  Honestly, I don’t know.  And I am not very optimistic.