Fallen Heroes and Rising Sons

Did you hear the news this week?  Cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted he doped to win seven Tour de France races, and Heisman Trophy runner up Manti Te’o may have been duped into believing he had, and tragically lost, a girlfriend.

blog foto sportsYes, I know it was hard to miss either story. In my own home, football is often Topic A, so Te’o’s shocking story got lots of play. Back in Chicago, my brother logged long hours working on Armstrong’s broadcast, so my siblings, mother and I watched—and virtually “discussed”—Oprah’s show with great interest.

As a cynical journalist, I’m skeptical about both stories. Did Armstrong really tell the whole truth this time, and if so, what was his goal?  Was Te’o really the victim of a hoax, or did he invent his alleged girlfriend’s alleged death to gain sympathy before the Heisman voting?

We may never know the truth, but we do know that when we place sports heroes on such high pedestals, they inevitably fall. And, perhaps it’s our culture of sports idolatry that provides these athletes with “permission’ – at least in their own minds – to bend or break rules to their own advantage.

Whatever. Lance, Manti, and all of the alleged cheating, drug-taking, girlfriend-beating and dog-killing athletes really have no impact on my life. However, I now have two sons who long to become sports heroes themselves, and I fear the future.

In December, my high school senior learned he will play lacrosse at his first-choice college next fall. Ten days later, my college sophomore revealed that he’s itching to return to the gridiron, and started the ball rolling to change schools and suit up for football next fall.

Both boys are talented enough for Division III sports, and are hard-working enough to make a run for starting positions. If the kids can make it happen, my husband and I will support them, buy school sweatshirts and attend a few games.

I’m happy that they are happy, and I’m not terribly worried about injury, disappointment or their ability to balance schoolwork and sports. However, I’m petrified that they could become self-indulgent, entitled, troubled athletes like Armstrong and all the rest.

For the past two decades, I have tried to model honesty, integrity, empathy and self-control for my kids. Will those lessons carry over to the locker room?

As a parent, how do you reinforce the values that are so contrary to the American way? How do you keep a kid away from performance-enhancing drugs, when his coaches, doctors and teammates are pushing them, and they feel they can’t compete on a “level playing field” without them?

How do you stress that even if you’re a college jock, you still need to respect women? That as a role model for kids around the country, you need to behave well in all realms – not just on the field?

Don’t get me wrong: I am glad my sons have the confidence to set high goals and the determination to reach them.  I am very proud of their work ethic, and I hope their successes bring them much happiness. They are great kids, and I hope they will be great athletes.

However, I’m giving myself permission to worry, just a little, about the other forces at play. And, in the coming months, I’ll continue to use stories like Armstrong’s and Te’o’s to drive home some important messages.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 21 Jan. 2013
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