The Athlete as Role Model

09/23/2014 06:04 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

The seemingly endless saga of Ray Rice and his fellow miscreants raises some fundamental questions about the role of athletes in American culture. Beginning in the nineteenth century when sports remained primarily a local affair, the players who participated were generally considered by the public for what they were -- talented young athletes. Newspapers reported their athletic accomplishments on the diamond -- and later on the gridiron, court and ice rink as Americans adopted football, basketball and hockey as seasonal diversions.

Consider these two baseball heroes of the nineteenth century. Fanatics who followed their local baseball club did not know -- or care -- that Mike "King" Kelly was an alcoholic. The most popular ballplayer of his era, Kelly was sold by the Chicago White Stockings to the Boston Beaneaters in 1887 and became a great favorite among the Irish fans. After he retired from the game, Kelly, like eighty percent of all former ballplayers who went into business, invested in a saloon. Alcohol had taken its toll, however, and Kelly died at the age of 36. Ed Delahanty, the greatest power hitter of the early game, was drunk on and off the field. Nonetheless, he was a hero to many, especially after one game in 1896 when he hit four consecutive inside-the-park home runs. Banished from his club, the Washington Senators, for missing too many games on a road trip to the Midwest, Delahanty stumbled off the train that was taking him back east and fell into the Niagara River to his death. Off-field misconduct, however, did not besmirch the reputation of either Kelly or Delahanty.

Most nineteenth century baseball players were a raucous bunch of rowdies with working-class origins. Spectators only cared whether they produced a timely hit, not whether they were social -- or even criminal -- misfits. That did not mean that the public was always unaware of the faults of their athletic heroes. That information just did not seem pertinent.

The sporting public adored Ty Cobb even though his teammates and players on opposing clubs hated him. When, in 1912, Cobb jumped into the stands at New York's Hilltop Park to pummel a heckler, the press blamed the heckler for using language that, as the New York Times wrote, "has no place in a family newspaper." The newspaper reported that when Cobb was told his victim had no hands because of a workplace accident, Cobb responded: "I don't care if he has no feet." The public loved the bully.

Something happened to this paradigm as the twentieth century progressed. Sports figures began to be recognized more as celebrities like Hollywood stars, valued for the entertainment they provided. For youngsters growing up in the cities and towns of America, athletes became their role models. As such, they were held to a higher standard of conduct away from the ball fields where they demonstrated their athletic excellence. The media began to cover their scandals like the movie stars chronicled in tabloid magazines.

A few athletes were able to retain their special status. The excesses of Babe Ruth -- perhaps the greatest athlete of all time considering both his prowess as a pitcher and a hitter -- became daily fodder for the press. Despite his flawed behavior away from the diamond, Ruth still retained the affection of the sporting public. Few parents, however, would urge their children to follow his notorious example.

Today's 24-hour news cycle combined with pervasive social media and scandal-based websites has erased whatever privacy athletes retained in their private lives. In part, that is because today's professional athletes are paid a king's ransom to entertain us. The public's need to know is insatiable. The expansion of media coverage has fed this appetite.

No professional athletes today can expect to keep his runs-ins with the law away from public scrutiny. No videotapes or selfies will remain private. All who would aspire to prominence in sports know they will pay a price in exchange for their successes. For those who cannot take the public scrutiny, life outside the sports arena awaits.

Those who lead the businesses of sport also must recognize that they walk on a knife's blade. Today's greatest successes can become tomorrow's history. Even the most prosperous sports business can become like the events of the Roman Coliseum, a relic of a bygone age. The public is fickle when it comes to entertainment. Silent movies and boxing are dead. Why should the public waste its affections on a sport that cripples those who play its games? Why should we follow those athletes who demonstrate execrable personal qualities off the field? Is there no one left to serve as a true role model for our youth?