Over the last few months I've done something rare. I've taken to watching sports.
Sports-watching is a strange phenomena that has always escaped me. I grew up in foreign countries, without television, where sports meant playing, not watching. The American obsession with athletes has largely been an utter mystery to me.
(Remember watching The Brady Bunch when little Bobby was star-struck by a fellow named Joe Namath? Well, I had never heard of him and the episode left me scratching my head at all the fuss. Likewise, when the O.J. Simpson story broke I didn't know who he was until someone told me he was the injury-prone guy in the "Naked Gun" movies.)
But a few years ago I caught World Cup fever. You know, that soccer thing. It's only the most popular sport in the world and my favorite. At first watching it only made me want to play, but gradually I grew to enjoy the games. Two years ago the U.S. debuted Major League Soccer (MLS) and I've been hooked, watching games every week (often in Spanish on Univision).
Lately it's been scaring me. I know team names. I know stats, win-loss records. I know players. Some of them I saw debut in World Cup '94 and I feel I've nearly watched them grow up. Lately I even recognize the referees!
Horrors! Have I begun the gradual transition into one of those smarmy, selfish, sports-obsessed couch potatoes I always hated? (You know the kind. "What?! You've never heard of Jorge Campos? My God, you need a brain transplant, quick!")
I never understood why people wasted brain space on all those stats until now. Suddenly I discover watching a game is more exciting when I know a player's history -- the injuries, the personal problems, and the oh-so-close chances. I feel like I'm a part of the team.
I've also noticed what a dramatic effect commercial advertising has on a sport. It's the commercials that make the stars. Nowhere is this more evident than in U.S. soccer.
Soccer in America is a New Thing, at least as a commercial enterprise. It's fascinating to see young players being given chances to promote Coke, Nike, or Reebok. The ads are cool, meaning the players are cool, and the sport is cool.
And that's what concerns me. Ads are ads. They are not real life. They are designed to sell an image of supra-reality.
It is these ads that create heroes for the next generation of Americans. The O.J. Simpson I mentioned earlier was once leaping through airport terminals and creating an idealized version of himself in the process. Yet we all know what a distortion of reality that was.
I've never paid attention to American sports. I don't recognize sports figures when they hawk products at me. I'm only vaguely aware they're athletes.
But I have noticed how America puts these men and women on pedestals. They are our gods. We worship and admire them, envy them, or at least their fame and fortune.
Have we no heroes beyond athletes, rock stars, or movie idols? It would seem not.
I told my mother I was glad Mother Teressa passed away when she did. Coming in the midst of the grieving for Princess Diana, the world actually noticed a Saint.
Saints get little press, except for scandal, or rumor of scandal. A White Knight or Good Samaritan isn't newsworthy, but a basketball player with green hair who punches photographers is hot video.
I have nothing against athletes, musicians, artists, or movie stars. They have their place. But emulating what are often immature, immoral, inconsequential people is a dangerous recipe. Already our young people can scarcely focus on any "star" for more than a few seconds before a new fad takes over, or someone more outrageous comes along.
Daily we hear stories of movie stars divorcing, musicians getting shot, athletes dying of drug overdoses. These are same individuals we are taught to want to emulate, yet their personal lives are disasters, their ethics and morality questionable, if not nonexistent.
And if anyone cries foul, says something like Murphy Brown isn't a good role model for family values, a nation jumps down his throat.
This saddens me. When our heroes are not held responsible for their actions, what does that teach our children?
What has gone wrong? Where are the true heroes, the ones we trusted as children? The moral-minded man who stood for his beliefs when all were against him, or the ethical woman who refused to cheat despite the considerable gain it offered her?
Those moral heroes are gone. Today's heroes are about talent or good looks, not principles.
Yet every day we base decisions upon those principles. We use them to decide if we should lust or lie or steal... or not. Is it any wonder that crime is increasing?
Seems like society's priorities are out of wack, doesn't it.