Over the summer, I worked at a Dairy Queen. I had the pleasure of watching kids plaster their faces with chocolate ice cream and dealing with impatient, obnoxious adults. But, like any job, it had its perks – free banana splits were great fixes for six-hour shifts that were inevitably filled with cranky parents and screaming lines of shrill impatience. And then there were the people who would occasionally file into line, most memorably Syracuse native Mike Hart, accompanied by his running back posse, and the Michigan All-American guard Jake Long.
My other job this past summer, as a part of the University of Michigan golf course grounds crew, was also littered with famous encounters. At one particular event, I found myself weeding flowerbeds and in conversation with Arizona Cardinal draft pick and former Michigan quarterback John Navarre. At that same event, I introduced myself to running back Tai Streets and watched as former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh’s shot from the number one tee sailed into the rough.
It’s interesting to think that these meetings stand out as highlights of my summer. What is it about someone who makes millions of dollars a year off of the ability to hit a ball or who has set the record for yards rushed at Michigan that captures the attention of the average middle-class citizen? The answers are numerous and probably seem obvious: curiosity of their talent, awe at their accomplishments and an aspiration to perhaps someday inspire people the way athletes do. I know that I have always put famous athletes on a pedestal, but, by doing that, I’ve also been guilty, along with most of America, of equating them to being unreal, almost fictional characters and, by association, of holding them to idealistic expectations in realms outside of athletics. Don’t worry, this is not turning into an attempt to vindicate Michael Vick, but I think there is something to be said for the unrealistic standards that we set for professional athletes, on and, more importantly, off the field.
After all, we don’t pay pro-athletes to be good people. We pay them to be good at what they do. Too often, it seems, we think of them as perfect individuals because they have this “supernatural” ability to be perfect while on a field of play. But should being above par in one aspect of life equate to being above par in all aspects of life?
It is true that, as our friendly neighborhood Spiderman was constantly reminded, “with great power comes great responsibility,” but for athletes, seeing as their skill lies only on the court or field, their responsibility should also lie only in that sector. And while it only makes the player more likeable if they happen to go above and beyond in a pursuit of perfection, it should by no means be required.
As far as Michael Vick or “Pacman” Jones or even Barry Bonds go, yes, clearly a line needs to be drawn on the basic assumption of human decency (and, as it would be hard for me to make this point without including the name of a certain obnoxious Ohio State player, I will simply let all of you linger on a perfect example of human indecency: Maurice Clarett). As idolized figures for young generations, they do need to, at the least, be able to grasp the concept of obeying the law. At the same time, there is no reason why you should expect someone who can serve a tennis ball at 145 MPH, like Andy Roddick, who had a reputation of snobbery, to be some angelic figure. The same goes for a player like Randy Moss, who has a reputation of being the most selfish and egotistical person on the planet. This growing notion that when you turn on the TV to catch a sporting event, you will be watching the utmost in physical capability, along with a perfect human specimen from moral standpoints, is an idea that needs to be extinguished from our culture.
Obviously there are exceptions to this idea. Steve Yzerman was a great hockey player, as well as a very classy individual. Dwayne Wade has said over and over again that one of his main goals is to “leave the world a better place.” These are examples of people, however, who have gone beyond the traditional idea of the roles of a professional athlete. It should not be the expectation for all participants in athletics to be humanitarians or upstanding citizens. After all, perfection is hard enough to attain on the field, so why make it a requirement off the field?
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.