On Saturday, the Ray Lewis farewell tour travels to Denver to play the Broncos in an NFL playoff. Lewis is the linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, arguably the best at his position ever to play the game. He has received a lot of fanfare since recently announcing that this season would be his last. There has been no shortage of bouquets thrown his way, including a victory lap around the stadium at his final home game last weekend. A victory lap that was replayed ad nauseam the next day. Lost in the celebration of a football career in our sports-crazed society, many forget or choose to forget that Lewis was accused of murder not too long ago.
Lewis pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and avoided jail time. The murder for which he was charged was never solved. His “image” has undergone such a meteoric rehabilitation that he now endorses several products and will serve as a football analyst on ESPN upon retirement. Lewis even cited that it’s, “time to be a daddy” to his children as his reason for retiring. Excuse me for not being overjoyed with his newfound commitment to fatherhood. No one is arguing that Lewis is an outstanding football player. As a football fan, a dad, and a human being I just have a hard time with the celebrating and hero worship.
I wince when I see kids wearing jerseys of athletes who are not even close to being role models, and in some cases are criminals. I was one of those kids. One of my childhood heroes was Mark Gastineau, the defensive lineman for the New York Jets. Gastineau once held the single-season record for quarterback sacks. He was known for doing an obnoxious dance after tackling the quarterback that I loved and often emulated. Gastineau, however, was not a good guy off the field: domestic violence, drug possession, jail time, and a deadbeat no-show dad. He’s no hero.
This crushed me as a boy when I found out. I remember my dad telling me that pro sports were going downhill. That big egos and bigger paychecks were ruining them. This was a quarter century ago. The man was onto something. He recognized that I idolized a jerk, and he warned me about it. I was still heartbroken, and summarily mocked in school, when the first of Gastineau’s transgressions became public. I’m not against a little good-natured ribbing from your classmates when it comes to your favorite sports teams. The danger, in hindsight, lies when we put these very fallible people on a pedestal they don’t deserve.
A couple of months ago, we were sitting in church behind a mom with two sons. One of the boys was writing in his Yankees notebook. He was writing an essay about Mariano Rivera, the legendary relief pitcher for the Yankees who has dominated baseball for the better part of the last two decades. This boy was clearly enamored. He was so dedicated and loyal to this team and this player, it reminded me of myself when I was a boy. He and his parents are lucky he chose a true role model, someone who conducts himself with class on and off the field.
We need to be more aware of the heroes our children choose, or the ones we choose for them. My daughter doesn’t like sports. Despite my reservations, she gravitated towards Disney princesses and Barbie. There are stereotypes and false images involved that worry me. In the end, it’s up to me and her mom to address those concerns when we feel it’s appropriate.
I got the short end of the stick when it came to heroes. Sports heroes, at least. But it turns out, my dad is my hero. He taught me about life. He taught me how to be a good husband and dad, how to be a good person. He taught me better than any sports figure, even the best role models like Rivera, ever could. As for my daughter, I’m pretty sure I’m not her hero. I’m also pretty sure it’s not Rapunzel or Ariel. Her mom’s her hero. A hard-working, kind, patient woman. I couldn’t have wished for a better role model for her.
Justin is a husband, dad, and writer who also blogs about parental roles, traditional and untraditional, at Daddy Knows Less.