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Gene Wang
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Gene Wang

A sports staff writer at The Washington Post

Affirming the Best in McNair

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My boyhood hero was Roger Staubach, and for much of my youth, I thought all athletes were supposed to be like him.

Staubach was the quarterback of America's Team, so often rescuing the Dallas Cowboys in the final minutes that he earned the moniker Captain Comeback. He led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl titles and was voted most valuable player in Super Bowl VI. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 while playing at the Naval Academy.

More important than anything Staubach did on the field, though, was his war-time service to his country. While many of his college football peers were getting ready for a career in the NFL, Staubach, instead of requesting a state-side assignment, deployed for a tour duty in Vietnam.

On top of all that, Staubach is a devoted family man who volunteers much of his time to civic and charitable organizations. It was convenient to believe as a boy that all athletes were of similar stock, with virtually no shortcomings in character and performance.

But then I came to realize Staubach was the exception, that football players -- and athletes in general for that matter -- were fallible like the rest of us. Whether that's an indictment on the individual or our failures as a society is a discussion for another day. The reality is athletes' imperfections underscore their humanity.

The death of Steve McNair forces us to re-examine the degree to which we admire athletes, or if they deserve role model status in the first place. On one hand, McNair was a consummate professional on the field who earned unfailing respect from coaches, teammates and fans alike. He embodied leadership, fortitude and perseverance, three virtues for which we all strive.

Then there are the reports about McNair's personal life. Nashville authorities said McNair, a married father of four, had a relationship with the 20-year-old woman, Sahel Kazemi, found dead with him on July 4. Apparently the pair had been dating for five months, and relatives of the female victim said they were led to believe McNair was leaving his wife.

We of course mourn for McNair's family, particularly his children, whose last memory of their father may be clouded by his marital indiscretion. But the hope is forgiveness overcomes resentment, anger and any other emotions associated with this tragic circumstance, and that his four boys will remember their father the way agent Bus Cook described him: "As good as he was on the football field, that couldn't touch the person."

In the aftermath of the murder-suicide, there has been visceral reaction to the news of McNair's infidelity. Some posters have gone so far as to say McNair got what he deserved. That's absurd invective that ought not to be dignified with a response.

Infidelity doesn't cheapen McNair's exhaustive charity work or the fact he brought joy to millions of football fans in Nashville and nationally. It doesn't diminish his impact on any number of African American boys who count McNair as an inspiration, a long shot from the poorest state in America who became a Heisman finalist at Division I-AA Alcorn State, then the third overall pick in the 1995 draft and league co-MVP in 2003.

President Obama made reference to the life of Michael Jackson the other day, and his remarks seem apropos in the wake of McNair's tragic death. Obama said Jackson "had difficulty in his private life" and "I don't think we can ignore that," but went on to say "it's important for us to affirm the best of him."

There was much to admire about Steve McNair, and it would be myopic to overlook his extensive contributions to society because of his martial indiscretion.

By Gene Wang  |  July 8, 2009; 11:59 AM ET  | Category:  Baltimore Ravens , Crime , Gene Wang , Tennessee Titans Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: What Is a Hero? | Next: A Hero on the Field

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I'm sorry, but whatever impact McNair had as an inspiration to African-American boys (or any others) is completely diminished (actually, obliterated) by the fact that he was quote-dating-unquote someone other than his wife and doing it with four sons at home. Quite an example for those youngsters, huh?. And you call it an "indiscretion"?

Posted by: capsfan77 | July 8, 2009 5:33 PM

Gene,

How many communities are devastated b/c men shirk off their family roles/responsibilities? Leave wives/children? Find lives on the side that involve DUIs and girlfriends who apparently do illegal drugs?

It's nice that McNair took his cash and did some charity work - it really is. But you turn a blind eye to the basic connection between fidelity in one's family and strong communities.

The narrow context of football is one thing, but if McNair is a "role model" in the community then it's just a sad sign of the times.

Posted by: p1funk | July 9, 2009 8:58 AM

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