Ray Lewis. Kobe Bryant. Ben Roethlisberger. Tiger Woods. Michael Vick. And now Manti Te’o.
Phenomenal athletes. Some will even consider them among the greatest sports figures of all time. Ray Lewis, arguably the top inside linebacker of all time, and Kobe Bryant, possibly the greatest shooter ever not named MJ, are guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famers. Tiger has the chance, when he eventually retires, to go down as the best golfer in history.
Even Vick and Roethlisberger, while not the most consistent players, have consistently led their respective franchises to the playoffs over the past decade.
Now Te’o, last season’s Heisman Trophy runner-up, prepares to enter the NFL after restoring Notre Dame football to relevancy with a 12-1 record and a berth in the BCS National Championship.
For all these players have accomplished, though, for all they have done for their sports, their teams and their fans, they all have stumbled.
Lewis, only weeks after being named Super Bowl MVP in January 2000, was indicted on charges of murder and aggravated assault. During the summer of 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a hotel employee in Colorado; Roethlisberger even went a step farther, being accused of sexual assault twice, both in 2008 and 2010.
Still, even after falling from glory, these three continued to play. More importantly, they continued to excel.
For many people, rape and murder accusations are permanent reputation destroyers. Charges that serious aren’t taken lightly and other than professional athletes, few people are able to rebuild their image.
That’s the key, though: other than professional athletes. Sports superstars are built up by the media and their fans almost to the point of idolatry; sometimes, we forget they are people too, living under the same laws as the rest of us. Just because someone is athletically superior to the average man doesn’t mean they are allowed to live by a looser moral code. Or does it?
Even the two men who were “caught”, Woods with his seemingly endless affairs and Vick with his dog-fighting scandal, have been forgiven by their fanbases and sponsors alike. We overlook the fact that Tiger cheated on his wife, the mother of his children, simply because he can drive a little ball 350-plus yards in the air.
That brings us to Te’o. The golden boy, the leader of Notre Dame’s suffocating defense, the young man who captivated the nation by overcoming the losses of his grandmother and girlfriend in a matter of days– and it wasn’t true.
While Te’o may not have created Lennay Kekua, he certainly knew more than he let on. With conflicting reports still seeking to discover the truth, only one thing is for certain: Te’o played America, hiding his personal shortcomings and judgment errors with his play on the football field. Ray Lewis did the same thing. So did Kobe and Ben. Tiger and Michael may have been found out, but they were able to make people at least forget their past discretions.
On the whole, our culture has come to expect and accept too little from our professional athletes. With the platform given to them by modern society and the media, athletes should be role models for kids, not rapists and murderers. It is the role of a sports professional to abide by a stricter moral code than the average citizen, not a looser one.
We pay for their overblown salaries with tickets and merchandise, help them provide for their families and friends and in return, we end up with negative influences for younger generations; so far, they’ve failed to live up to their end of the bargain.
The point is that ultimately Te’o is only one in a long line of tremendous athletes to mask his personal mistakes with his athletic performance. Hopefully in the future, our athletes will continue to excel on the field but also will come to be powerful role models for our kids.
Again, hopefully is the key word; at this rate, Te’o certainly won’t be the last.