Where have all the sports heroes gone? | WYPR

Where have all the sports heroes gone?

Oct 2, 2017

A view of Ray Lewis' statue (left) in front of M & T Bank Stadium.
Credit Austin Kirk/flickr

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It’s been 24 years, nearly a generation, since Charles Barkley uttered the famous words "I am not a role model." 

At the time, many people, myself included, thought Barkley was copping out, of begging out of the time-honored tradition of sports figure as hero or heroine.

Perhaps it was just naivete, but we used to live in a time where you could admire someone simply because he played sports, where you could ascribe heroic traits to a man simply because he hit a baseball, threw a touchdown or dunked a basketball.

I wonder about all of that as I watch what the sports world has become or more to the point, what it will be like for my great-great nephews and for my great niece.

My niece is three, while the boys are each two years old, born a month apart. They know precious little about sports and for all I know, they may never care.

But I’d like to believe that we old heads will leave them a world where it’s OK to hang a poster of a favorite player that you’re proud of for more than what they do on the field.

Some of these thoughts came to mind during the discussion over whether the statue of former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis should be removed from in front of the team’s stadium in the wake of Lewis’ decision to kneel before the Ravens game in London last Sunday.

More than 70,000 people – a number the size of the capacity of the stadium – signed a petition to take Lewis’ statue down.

For the record, I wouldn’t have put the statue up in the first place. Lewis was the emotional core of the Ravens’ two Super Bowl wins and one of the game’s greatest middle linebackers.

But, for my money, you don’t get a statue in your honor when you’ve been convicted of lying to police in a double homicide, as Lewis has.

That said, Lewis’ decision to get down on both knees last week shouldn’t, in my mind, be the impetus for taking the statue down, even if it was for self-aggrandizement, as many have speculated, given Lewis’ penchant for drawing attention to himself.

It seems that for every clean-cut shortstop who drinks his milk and plays every day, there’s a wide receiver who gets down on all fours to simulate a dog urinating on a fire hydrant.

For every Roberto Clemente, who gave his life bringing relief to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, there’s a Conor McGregor tossing out racial slurs in advance of an MMA fight.

As a kid growing up in Southern Maryland, my heroes were the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson and Wes Unseld of the then-Baltimore Bullets.

They weren’t just great players, men who did their jobs as athletes but they were pillars of the community, figures you could respect.

One important change between the games of my youth and those of today is the presence of female athletes. It’s now likely that little girls and boys have women they can emulate and that’s a great thing.

I hope every kid finds a player who not only doesn’t run from being a role model, but embraces it.

And that’s how I see it for this week.