Goldsmith: Wait for all the facts before demonizing professional athletes

It was Grantland Rice who said, “When the great scorer comes to mark against your name, he’ll write not ‘won’ or ‘lost,’ but how you played the game.”

Rice, a poet and sportswriter in early 20th century America, characterizes athletes with a sense of virtue, the base of sportsmanship — the measure by which we as fans should truly evaluate our star athletes.

In today’s professional sports environment, our athletes don’t always measure up as they should. This era of sports seems in many ways like the era of fallen heroes. We have seen performance-enhancing drugs virtually destroy the credibility of a generation of professional baseball players, as well as Lance Armstrong’s inspirational career, while raising suspicions of countless others. Furthermore, heightened media activity surrounding the personal lives of our favorite athletes has meant the uncovering of personal shortcomings, most recently and noticeably tarnishing the legacy of Tiger Woods.

Every single day, we hear unsavory news about a professional athlete. Yesterday, it was New York Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards, charged with a DUI in Manhattan two days after catching a touchdown pass in a victory over the New England Patriots. In recent weeks, this negative buzz surrounded the return of Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman Trophy given his violation of NCAA policy. Several months before that, it was Andre Agassi’s admittance to having taken crystal meth and wearing a mullet-wig.

Negative sports news is not hard to spot, but it is not always the same. We can all appeal to Grantland Rice, and agree that Edwards’s DUI is in no way defensible.

But with a story like Reggie Bush’s, I, for one, need some convincing that he is as detestable as the media makes him out to be. To summarize briefly, a sports agent sued Bush and his family for not repaying about $300,000 worth of gifts received during the running back’s time at the University of Southern California, a violation of the NCAA’s amateurism policy. This in turn led to the uncovering of other violations by the USC football program and athletic department, and recently culminated with Bush surrendering his Heisman.

Without having followed the story closely as the details emerged regarding Bush’s relationship with agents Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels, I can’t say for sure whether Reggie is blameless, but something seems fishy. Even if Bush were fully aware of his infractions and willing to disregard them, Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels just sound like a potentially sleazy duo.

Reggie Bush’s story gives fans a choice of several conclusions. He could be the knowing violator of NCAA policy, acting out of greed and youthful self-interest. Or he could be the knowing violator of NCAA policy, desiring simply to help support his family. Or maybe he was the unwitting victim of a Hugh Honey & Vic Vinegar sports agency racket, which preys on talented future-professional athletes.

Maybe the public information available is enough to convince fans to believe one of these particular identities. As for now, I am not convinced, and I encourage my fellow fans to attempt to reserve judgment.

In many cases, such as Braylon Edwards’, reserving judgment simply avoids the obvious — sometimes athletes behave improperly or act unethically, and these situations are usually easy to identify.

In many others, however, it is the sports media’s tendency to enhance transgressions and if not directly represent, then certainly indicate, that these athletes aren’t virtuous. I am not advocating total clemency for the O.J. Simpsons of the world, but I can’t help but feel that as consumers of sports media we perpetuate the sensationalist press that often leads to the fall of our great heroes. We see it everywhere.

Now certainly, in the presence of accurate and sufficient information, our worst suspicions are confirmed, and role models become counter-examples. It is a sad reality of humanity that people often act in the absence of virtue, but given a reasonable degree of doubt, isn’t it more fulfilling to believe in the potential good of sports stars, and to allow them to inspire us?

I suppose I sound naïve, but we should recognize that we don’t always need to martyr our own heroes.

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