I still remember those days back in 1998 and 1999 (I was 11 and my brother was 9) when we first became totally enthralled and consumed by the world of sports. Every moment we watched a game, a match, a competition, there were endless dreams that filled our heads and inspiration that filled our hearts. Anything was possible. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa obliterated a nearly 40 year old home run record with awe-inspiring power and big smiles. The Yankees won multiple World Series as if they didn’t know anything else was possible. Tiger Woods burst onto the golf scene as not only a man of a different background, but as the first young, engaging and exciting player to watch on Tour. Even in a sport we still didn’t quite understand, we watched Lance Armstrong bring new spotlight to the world of cycling as his triumph against cancer captivated sports fans across the globe. Seeing all that would make you believe that you could accomplish anything. That nothing could stand in your way forever. It was the beauty of sports – bringing people together, instilling belief and motivating/inspiring change and success. But all of that rests upon a very fragile foundation. A foundation of trust.
One Mitchell Report, a Biogenesis article, a car crash in Florida, a World Doping Agency investigation and countless other indictments, suspensions and inquiries later and we’re left with shattered pieces of what we once believed. How can anyone, as a sports fan, reliably trust an athlete these days? Rumors used to be media-promoted hearsay that rarely amounted to anything substantial or even real. But now rumors are often the closest thing we as fans have (or will ever have) as facts. Who knows exactly what Lance Armstrong did to win all those Tour De Frances? Or what Ryan Braun took to win the MVP? However, this broken trust runs even deeper than that. Not only do we need to be wary of every rumor, every hint of foul play, but we can’t even trust the words of our own sports stars. Public speeches with heartfelt stories and confident proclamations of innocence used to be (and should be) viewed as a tough, yet respectful gesture by our sports stars to strengthen our trust and belief in them. But now? Now, we have no idea how to see between the lines, read behind the stoic looks and interpret the real truth even though the words indicate something different. Ryan Braun may be the most recent, but there have been an unfortunately high number of stars in the last few years that have publicly lied about their past. LIED to everyone. LIED about CHEATING.
And, after all this, where are we left as sports fans? Confused, ashamed, embarrassed, regretful, vengeful? Regardless of the feeling, we’re all definitely scarred. No longer can we believe and be inspired like we were as kids. Now we believe with caveats, motivate with asterisks and dream with caution. We see amazing feats or glorious triumphs and can’t help but let that poisonous thought cross our mind: “did this only occur because someone cheated?” It not only degrades achievement in the eyes of the beholder, but it unfortunately takes away from any athlete who has legally and legitimately achieved something great. Instead of joy, support and celebration, they get interrogation and investigation. But who could blame us (fans, media)?
Whether it was ever their fault or not, athletes of yesterday have obliterated that foundation of trust such that athletes of today (and in the future) need to live up to a higher standard. They have to work twice as hard and be twice as transparent to even start to rebuild that foundation. Confident words of innocence are no longer accepted. Regular test results that have to “tell” the truth (for now) are required. Pristine criminal records, past, present and future are required (I’m looking at you Aaron Hernandez and Oscar Pistorius). On-time arrival to every practice and every game, even in college are required (cough…Johnny Manziel…cough). Now the spotlight shines brighter and in more places, which means a lot more money to gain, but also a lot less to hide. I’m not saying we as fans or the media need to further intrude into the personal lives of sports stars. I’m actually vehemently against that type of invasion of privacy. However, I am saying that sports stars of today and tomorrow will need to be voluntarily more open and more transparent about their skills, their training and their innocence than ever before. Good or bad, they’ll need to work harder than anyone before them to achieve the same level of trust and belief. And when they do, my brother and I (and all of our sports brethren) will be here to greet them, celebrate them and believe in them as they once again inspire us to be great.
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