When it comes to sports in the States, America's "National Pastime" is still considered to be baseball. While American football may have surpassed it in popularity, baseball continues to be seen as the quintessentially American sport. It is the stuff of legends like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and the game that captures the imagination of the masses, from intellectuals to the "average Joe." When the great New England painter Norman Rockwell wanted to capture depictions of Americans at play, he turned to baseball for his enduring images.
But now, once again, a number of our most decorated "Boys of Summer" have shown themselves wanting. It's hardly a new development that baseball has been racked by the use of performance enhancing drugs. We remember that baseball resurgence in the late 1990s was due in great measure to the excitement over a home run race that captured the national imagination only to find out later it was steroid induced. Now this season brings the suspension of Milwaukee Brewer and 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun. Like so many before him in recent years, we learn that Braun is a cheat, despite his persistent assertions to the contrary. Even fellow players seem to be reaching the end of their rope. As the LA Dodgers infielder Skip Schumaker said as he was reportedly taking down an autographed jersey of Braun in his house: "I don't want my son identifying [the jersey with] what I've worked so hard to get to and work so hard to have. I don't want him comparing Braun to me."
And then there is the case of Alex Rodriguez, aka A-Rod. According to yesterday's USA Today it appears that A-Rod may be facing a lifetime ban for his persistent use of steroids and his even more persistent denials of use. A-Rod is the highest paid player in baseball history with career earnings of over $325 million. And for this we get more cheating and lying.
But baseball is not a lost cause when it comes to role models. Maybe it's time to look beyond these high profile superstars to find our real heroes. Since the inception of the MLB "paternity leave list" in 2011, more players have taken time away from the game to focus on bonding with their new child (or in the recent case of Twins All-Star catcher Joe Mauer, twins). The league's paternity leave policy exceeds the leave offered by many companies, and MLB should be applauded for their commitment to supporting men and their families. Our own work studying fathers has taught us how much today's dads want to spend more time with their families. More than 75% of the fathers in our research report that they would like to have had more time off with their new children. Unfortunately, corporate policies afford a scant few American fathers the opportunity to take two weeks away from work, as new dad Prince William and his UK counterparts are guaranteed.
If we seek even better examples of male athletes as fathers and role models, I would suggest we look to the links. In the past few weeks, the world of professional golf has offered up two powerful examples.
First, there was Phil Mickelson. At June's US Open, Mickelson interrupted his tournament - and his sleep - to fly coast to coast from Philadelphia to San Diego to attend his daughter Amanda's 8th grade graduation. His daughter said she understood if her father needed to stay at work on the East Coast and miss her big day. But Mickelson wanted to be there. He flew overnight between rounds and after getting only two hours of sleep proceeded to shoot a 67 to put himself in the lead. "I feel great" he said after his round, and that might well have been the result of more than just his score on the course. Mickelson finished second at this year's Open but I have a feeling he was far and away #1 in his daughter's eyes.
Then last weekend, golfer Hunter Mahan chose to put family first, a decision that may have cost him $1 million. Mahan held a two-shot lead after Friday's second round of the RBC Canadian Open. But when he received a call early the next morning that his wife had gone into labor, he withdrew from the tournament to return to Texas to be present for the birth of their first child, daughter Zoe. "Both Baby and Mom are doing great. Thanks to all to my sponsors who appreciate what's important in life and all my fans for being Awesome!" he tweeted.
These days, I'd argue, we need to be more discerning about who we label as heroes or look to for life lessons. It's time to move away from idolizing the steroid-abusing "superstars" and shift our admiration to those who are demonstrating what it really means to be a man. Let's look at a new superstar as one who exemplifies some old-fashioned values: fair play, integrity, and commitment to family, as being far more important than winning at all costs. In the long run, following these tenets will lead to a more fundamental and lasting form of success.
That's advice even A-Rod could take to the bank.