There is Pablo Morales, the Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, who graduated from Stanford last June as the winner of that university's highest award for campus and community involvement, which in his case included directing a program called Volunteers for Youth. And Nick Santagata, the New York jockey who seems to commit himself to every good cause that touches the track or his home, and who is also known as a soft touch for every stable boy or hot walker who ever tapped out on a sure triple. And Pam Shriver, the No. 4-ranked female tennis player in the world, who organizes (and plays in) her own tournament for the benefit of cystic fibrosis research and sits on her prep-school board of trustees. And Wayne Gretzky, hockey's best, Sportsman of the Year for 1982, who gives time to boost the causes of the blind, the mentally retarded and juvenile diabetics. Or Don Baylor, Ivan Lendl, Tatu, Rick Sutcliffe, Nolan Cromwell, Fernando Valenzuela, Chi Chi Rodriguez. Any of them, for his good works, could have been chosen.
Beyond the more obvious candidates, we also recognize that the most meritorious may be athletes we have never heard of—some terrific young man who hit .240 in Double A or some wonderful young woman who plays on a Division III field hockey squad. There are a lot of people in sports whom we simply haven't met, but who can be properly located, as the psalmist sang, only "a little lower than the angels." So, if you know one of them, thank him for us, for his good deeds, and tell her that we saved a space for her, and all those like her, to squeeze in.
There is room for many people of many interests in this eclectic group. But while our honorees of 1987 espouse varied causes, one thread seems to run throughout—a devotion to children. Just as naturally, children look up to athletes. This distresses many adult know-it-alls who think that the future of the republic is threatened because American tykes admire linebackers and power forwards instead of people they damn well should be admiring—proper sorts, such as statesmen, clergymen and philosophers.
Nonsense. The kid who looks up to a politician or a preacher is the rare exception. Most children idolize athletes. In fact, athletes (and other entertainers) are, as we shall see, more important to children today than ever before. Unfortunately, many athletes are uncomfortable with this reality and try to evade what it means. It's their contention that as long as they go out and play ball, nothing else is required of them. This is fallacious on a number of counts. First, star athletes are part of a business that is in the public eye. Scrutiny goes with the whole luxurious territory. Second, athletes are rewarded commensurate with their fame, not their intrinsic talent, and they should be obliged to pay back in that same popular currency. And finally, as glib as this may sound nowadays, it still obtains: To whom much is given, much is expected. It's simple. Athletes can make a difference in children's lives, and it matters little that these heroes are relatively inconsequential to the world because they're "just" in sports. On the contrary, if children see that some athletes are models for good, then they may be more inclined to believe that the "real" leaders—those at the helms of state and church and business—are likewise to be trusted and admired.
Moreover, the position that athletes fill in young lives—in their upbringing—is bound only to enlarge. As a nation, we have been melding. We've moved hither and yon, we gobble the same franchise food, nod at the same anchormen. For so long we were a confederation of ethnic groups, of neighborhoods and extended families, but now most of the nation shares so much—not least, national sports—that the Americanization of Americans is nearly complete. "What do you know of life?" Sarah, the Salvation Army lady, asks Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. "Only a little bit," he replies. "Around the edges." There are not many edges left anymore in America.
Another result of this distillation process is that we have lost much of what may be described as the cultural middle management of the nation. As ethnic identity has become less distinct, as neighborhoods have scattered and families stretched beyond the supply lines, the precinct captain and the high school principal and the great-aunts and uncles, some of the characters who once formed the superstructure of the child's community, have tumbled off the edgeless ends.
Others had to replace them and others did: the celebrity oligarchy. It seems to me that a kind of U.S. royal court has grown up in which only fame and face count. Members of the oligarchy all appear of the same value, regardless of their profession. Lee Iacocca, Magic Johnson, Mac Tonight and Jimmy Swaggart are down at the Gulf station together, kicking tires. The quality of a person's accomplishment fades behind the smile so that senators, scientists and shortstops all appear equal in their achievement. Because children are more familiar with sports stars, it's no wonder that athletes will exert an even more disproportionate influence upon our young people.
Bill Russell was perhaps the first star athlete to make a philosophical point of not signing autographs, explaining that no mere athlete should be lionized, that a child should esteem his own father instead. It's a lofty sentiment, but impractical. Fathers (and mothers) loom too close, too human, too quotidian ever to merit their own child's hero worship. Athletes and other entertainers will always be a bigger deal.
Sports stars who are decent and giving do matter. They may be "just" in sports, but they make an impact on young lives and, therefore, on society. We are proud to honor here the eight Sportsmen and Sportswomen of 1987, athletes who best practice the ideals of sportsmanship away from the arena. As always, it is for parents to raise children, but their task is made easier because some athletes will stoop and help other people—and with that, uplift us all.