By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: This essay originally appeared in one of our local newspapers while I was on the staff there. One can discern from the persons and events related that it is dated in a sense; yet, like other of my old commentaries, the message is still relevant. Otherwise I would not be republishing it here.
Do we really need heroes? That question flickered across my mind several times over the past decade as I read news accounts of major sports, entertainment and political figures toppling off their pedestals. Of course, they’re just humans with the same frailties as the rest of us. The magnitude of their collapses perhaps is greater, but that they collapse should not be surprising.
The more bothersome aspect of this situation is not what the idols are doing; it’s what the general population is doing. Take Elvis Presley, for instance. I was a teenager when he started making the hit parade. I liked his songs, and I thought he was hilarious on the Ed Sullivan show. The movies he made were a bit shallow, and I never intentionally watched any more after Love Me Tender. But during those early years, he seemed to me to be just a likable country boy with a unique voice.
Then he went to Las Vegas, started dressing outrageously through the tutelage of Liberace, and reputedly got heavily into drugs. He got fat. His songs and singing became boring in style and content, too larded with vocal and orchestral backup. He seemed to me to be relying on the laurels of his past and the blindness of his massive group of uncritical fans.
Elvis may not have been immortal, but his fan club apparently is. He became something of a UFO — sightings of the immortal one kept being reported hither and yon. Then he became an image on a postage stamp, with a silly nationwide survey performed to find out if the people preferred the early Elvis or the later on their envelopes. Like Marilyn Monroe, another victim of her external self and the adulation of the masses and who also was emblazoned on a postage stamp, he became an icon of our era. Now I see on television that Elvis has become the focus of a new American religion, replete with temples and priests.
The fallen sports idols are just as numerous as the entertainment ones. Baseball players Babe Ruth and Pete Rose come immediately to mind, boxer Mike Tyson, and football players O. J. Simpson and Mike Irwin. But of course that’s not a complete list. I worry about another athlete who’s right up there at the top and a hero to many young people. Cynic that I am, I wonder: What is his Achilles heel? What would a collapse of his —such a magnitude! — do to the psyches of American youth?
Several years ago some football players on one of the best high school teams in North Texas were caught after committing several armed robberies of fast food restaurants. At their trial, coaches appeared, urging the judge to put the boys on probation and let them return to the football field, where they would be taught values and responsibility. The judge, in wonderment, looked up at the ceiling. The youths were already juniors and seniors who had presumably been in athletics since at least the ninth grade; if athletics hadn’t taught them values and responsibility by that point, it was highly unlikely to do so in the next year or two. All they would learn from such leniency would be that athletes can expect special treatment.
Perhaps we should teach our children to find values that don’t have to reside in models — in heroes — to give up the hunger for heroes. Hero-worship is basically idolatry — the enticing fruit in the Garden of Eden. But is that too hard? Is it even feasible to inculcate values that don’t have to be exemplified in some way? Can anyone stomach the medicine that “virtue can be its own reward” and doesn’t have to be a potion that will make them resemble their hero? To suggest it seems futilely to ignore the lust for the “larger-than-life” that has become a part of our cultural marrow.
It’s not Elvis’ fault that he became the subject of a cult nor Marilyn’s that she became the supreme sex symbol, although they must bear the responsibility for allowing their “talents” to destroy their personhoods. It’s not entirely the fault of those athletes that they developed the delusion that the general moral code is not binding on them; their fans cheered them right into the track of that delusion.
Former President Jimmy Carter was castigated for averring that America is suffering from a “malaise”. Yet that criticism was true; Carter was one of the prophets repudiated by his people. Presidential nominee Bob Dole blamed President Bill Clinton for the increased use of drugs by American youth. Clinton was just as silly as Dole, saying it was Congress’ fault because they had cut the anti-drug abuse program funding. Yet a poll by ABC-Newsweek revealed that the public doesn’t blame either party for the drug abuse problem. As usual, the people could see more clearly than their leaders. We can’t expect a personality — whether politician or entertainer or sports figure — to establish our goals and values for us. We, the people, must do that for ourselves.
Commentary in the Alpine (TX) Avalanche
Aug. 29, 1996