The League

Dr. Matthew Prowler
Resident Psychiatrist

Dr. Matthew Prowler

Resident Psychiatrist at The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

Athlete Idolatry


The demise of Steve McNair is the NFL's most current example of personal imperfection and fragility. That may be a more tactful way of describing bad behavior in this still early mourning period. And there has been a lot recently.

And yet, each story of transgression - whether adultery or animal cruelty - continues to sting and come as a shock. But why should it? Is it simple naiveté? Or perhaps good old-fashioned denial helps convince us that our sports heroes are less susceptible to the moral missteps that face us all.

In our largely monotheistic society, our worship of star athletes and their images approaches idolatry. We wear their jerseys, impersonate their mannerisms, and seek to know as much about them as possible. Certainly advertising - "Be Like Mike" - accentuates this, but the instinct is within us all. We construct this lofty pedestal and hope that it will not teeter. But should physical strength or quickness qualify one for hero status?

There is no reason to apply higher moral standards to these individuals whose job it is to entertain us with their physical prowess. In fact, being granted special treatment, wealth, and national attention at a young age could stunt anyone's moral development. Sports can provide inspiration and teach lessons of hard-work and dedication. We need not idolize the sportsman. And some players - Charles Barkley's "I'm not a role model, parents should be role models" line comes to mind - have rejected the unwanted and unwarranted responsibility.

Throughout childhood, we look to imprint desirable characteristics and lessons from our role models. Who these role models are is the question. Maybe the answer gets confused when the father wears the same star's jersey as his son. Enjoy the game. Root for your team. Strive for a similar three-step drop. But maybe Air Jordan or Air McNair are false idols and we need to be more critical of who deserves the title of hero.

By Dr. Matthew Prowler  |  July 8, 2009; 5:26 PM ET  | Category:  Baltimore Ravens , Crime , Dr. Matthew Prowler , Tennessee Titans Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A Family Tragedy | Next: Separating Great and Good


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Expressing outrage at a star athlete's transgressions is not, I do not believe, an example of holding that person to higher moral standards. It is expressing the same outrage that anyone would have had anyone else been in this situation. It is wrong for ANYONE to cheat. The outrage seems outsized becasue the people who transgressed did so publicly, as they lived their lives. I don't believe most people feel their ahtlete/celebrity "heroes/role models" aren't fallible. It's just that when the transgression is committed in a splashy, public, spectacular way (like a lot of these folks live their lives), the response to it is in kind.

Posted by: Jacquiem | July 9, 2009 10:49 AM

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