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Michael Phelps, Wally Backman, Ken Caminiti, Kobe Bryant, Terrell Owens, the reports of unsavory behavior are endless, as usual. At least we're not hearing so much about the importance of athletes being role models anymore. Hopefully, our society has finally stopped whuppin' on that there expired equine.
Ten years ago, the role model debate was a hot topic, particularly here at SI For Kids where we had a litmus test for athletes before we admitted them into our pages: a clean record and positive life message. We were quickly down to a pair of backup goaltenders, three utility infielders and a member of the PGA senior tour.
Kids demand that we pack our publication to its steeple with marquee stars, and the necessity of having stars to write about compelled us to mambo around a transgression or two or three as long as they didn't fall into the category of crimes against humanity. I'm not suggesting that SI For Kids has ever been a fumigation enterprise. We do hold miscreant athletes up as a bad sports when appropriate or, in extreme cases, simply ignore them, but sometimes it's hard, as in the case of Bryant, whose sexual assault trial during the Lakers' run to the NBA Finals made him the ultimate wheezing elephant in the corner.
It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when SI For Kids' reputation as a haven of positive publicity attracted athletes who astutely recognized that their images would benefit from our willingness to stick to subjects like their on-field exploits or childhood experiences. I once shared a particularly warm, fuzzy moment at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey with an NBA star who used me as human shield against a pack of newshounds sniffing for quotes about the paternity suit that had been filed against him earlier that day. "Get out of my [ah-HOOG-ah]-in' face!" the star barked at the hounds as he squeezed me tight with his tree-trunk arms. "Only one I'm talkin' to here is my man from Sports for Kids!"
Ah, the days of innocence. Now there is a persistent and pronounced athletic stench coming from the daily police blotter. Many athletes have dropped the charade and we're replacing our demand for exemplary behavior with keeping score of misdeeds and serving them up as amusement. Just look in your local paper for the blotter column or check out Badjocks.com if you've been relaxing under a rock since Nixon (Richard, not Trot) roamed the halls of the White House.
Personally, I think it's a one-way ticket to Disappointment Junction when you expect any prominent stranger to provide a reliable example of how to live -- particularly an athlete. When you mix youth, a free pass on the rules from the time you're in grade school and a mountain of discretionary cash, it's not exactly the optimum recipe for personal and civic responsibility. I've met some fine, classy athletes in my time, but for all I knew they could have gone home, closed the door, put on a coarse gray wig and pulled the wings off bluebottle flies while cackling manically. The inner truth of things is rarely apparent. All you can do is tend your own garden as best you can.
Curious as to how kids view athletes now, I posted yet another of my carefully crafted ultrascientific polls on SIKIDS.com and discovered Twas ever thus:
Do you pretend to be your favorite athlete when you play sports?
Often: 1,528 Once in a while: 1,324 Rarely: 654 Never. My favorite athlete is a stiff: 568
I'm keen on doing another poll to see how many kids look up to athletes with regard to behavior off the field. I'll get back to you shortly, as in under 5 feet.
The Weasel Industries Inc. Old Business Department
Have a question or opinion for John? He might answer or address it in his next blog.
(Ever the cutting edge scribe, I'm now selling naming rights to parts of my column.)
Reader George Ballek of grand old North Brunswick, N.J., mentioned in this space two weeks ago that he'd stumbled upon an English Premier League soccer game between Birmingham and Manchester United and heard an announcer intone that Birmingham had not beaten Man U in 26 years. Jonathan Sacks of Chandler, Ariz., was then moved to write in: The reason why Birmingham has not beaten Manchester United in 26 years is because Birmingham did not even play in the same league as United for much of that time. Only recently was Birmingham promoted to the Premiership, where they play United twice a season.
Well, then, that might explain it.
The First Federal Insecurities Cliché Corner
For those of you who insist on fresh speakin' and writin' from the sportin' media, Jason Cox of Pittsburgh kindly sent along the most recent edition of a brilliant annual column by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer, Gene Collier, who awards the Trite Trophy for worst cliche of the year. Read 'em and weep.
And Glen Carey of New York City submits: Perhaps we can form a petition and send it to the broadcasters demanding the removal of horrible phrases such as "literally." Does no one know what this word means anymore? I heard Dan Deirdorf say that the Chiefs offense was "literally carving up" the Broncos' defense. LITERALLY!?! Oh my Lord, call the cops! The Bronco players are being stabbed to death!!!