All it takes to know that Pete Rozelle is right on this hero business is a quick look at a kid's ball game. How very soft-hearted as well as soft-headed to think, as I have, that Rozelle asks too much of athletes when he reminds them they also are heroes. The kids wear John Riggins' 44 and Joe Theismann's 7. They do the Fun Bunch's touchdown high-five. The kids are watching.
Joe Gibbs said the Tony Peters case hurt a lot of people, some with Tony's picture on the bedroom wall. I grew up with Stan Musial's picture on my wall, but I knew nothing about Musial off the field and didn't care. I only wanted to hit .330. Had I found out Musial was a bum, it would have changed nothing. I learned how to behave from another hero, my father, who in an hour of silence taught me more than I could learn in a year reading about Musial.
So I was put off, at first thought, by Rozelle's statement three weeks ago when he suspended four NFL players who had been involved in drug cases; two had been placed on probation and two granted immunity in exchange for testimony. "NFL players enjoy a unique position in the eyes of the public," the commissioner said. "They are objects of admiration and emulation by countless fans, particulary young people." The implication was that players are heroes, whether they like it or not, and their jobs are in jeopardy if they fall off the pedestal.
This seemed unreasonable. For the most part, athletes are only ordinary people with extraordinary bodies. They are as lonely at night, as afraid, as anxious, as frustrated as cab drivers and plumbers and sportswriters. Alex Karras' autobiography is, "Even Big Guys Cry." Why ask them to be more than we ask of ourselves?
It is, certainly, unreasonable for parents to point to athletes and tell their youngsters, "Be just like Dr. J." The parents are only abdicating their own responsibility. And then comes Rozelle saying the NFL expects, even demands, that its players be paragons worthy of America's youth. By doing that, the commissioner elevates football from entertainment to a sociological force, a leap in logic that is as self-serving as it is arguable.
There is a solid, human case that it is unreasonable for Rozelle to demand that his players be more than cab drivers and more than plumbers. There is, too, another case built on the answer to one question, "Do public figures owe the public more than a private person does?"
The kids are watching.
"You want proof?" said a buddy who thought my head had gone terminally mushy when I wondered aloud if an athlete's off-field image influences anyone. "At the Broward County Mall, outside Miami, I saw a bunch of kids the other day--one black kid, four white kids--all with Mohawk haircuts. Mr. T. Case closed."
Then my phone rang. The call was from a young man, 22, once a high school and college basketball player who will enter medical school this fall. I did a column on him six years ago and he wanted me to see some writing he'd done. I asked him, "This hero business--does it influence kids growing up today?"
"I think it does," he said. "I always had my favorites, on the court and off, like Bill Bradley, Tom McMillen and Pat Haden. I liked them because they combined academics (all were Rhodes Scholars) and athletics. I really admired James Brown, too. He went from De Matha to Harvard and made the dean's list all four years. It impressed me that he could go to a top academic university like that and still keep his basketball going, too.
"And I remember as a kid reading a story about the Los Angeles Rams' big tackle, Roosevelt Grier. The story was about him doing needlepoint. At the time, I was taking ballet and tap dancing. I figured if Rosey Grier could do needlepoint, I could suffer ballet.
"You do hear a lot of bad stories like the Tony Peters case. Lawyers and accountants, people with money, get into drugs as much as athletes do. It's widespread and everyone knows it. But if you're an athlete in the public limelight, you get the publicity and nobody ever hears about the lawyer.
"So it works both ways. Anything an athlete does is highly publicized. Like Mark Moseley's work with an anticrime organization."
The kids are watching.
And not only watching.
"At church last Sunday, I asked my little brother if he said his prayers. He said yes and I said, 'Who'd you pray for?' He gave me the list and said, 'And I prayed for Tony Peters.' "