Santa Claus Syndrome

Are we that naive that we believe athletes to be perfect? We expect them to be. We believe them to be. We will them to be. Just like we want to believe in Santa Claus, we want to believe that our athletes are the best of us, the infallable; the gifted ones.

No Virgina, there is no Santa Claus.

Babe Ruth, the legendary slugger, is regarded to be one of the greatest sports heroes in American culture. According to ESPN, he was the first athlete whose fame transcended sports. He was a drinker and a womanizer, but even in the 1920s, fans overlooked his off-the-field antics, preferring to cheer the slugger on, homerun after homerun. And still we remember him as the greatest, womanizing or not.

We expected perfection from Michael Jordan,
perhaps the greatest basketball player to ever set foot on a basketball court. Like Woods, Jordan had a squeaky clean image for many years. When his father was murdered, we learned more about Michael
Jordan than we wanted to. He gambled. He had affairs. He divorced his wife. We learned that while he may have been nearly flawless on the basketball court, he was just as flawed as the rest of us off of it.

Charles Barkley, former NBA player, made headlines in 1993 when he stated, "A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail, does that make them role models?" Barkley took quite a bit of heat for that comment, and while he may have communicated it wrong, his sentiments were right.

Why do we expect our athletes to be perfect? Why are we so shocked when Michael Phelps is caught smoking pot after winning more gold medals than any other athlete in history?
Why are we so surprised to learn that Alex Rodriguez may have hit so many homers because he was on steroids?

Don't misunderstand me, I'm disappointed. I heard the news about Tiger and shook my head in disgust. But I can't say I was surprised.
The truth is, as a culture, we have the attention span of gnats. We are outraged that our athletes make mistakes because we hold them to a standard that is flat out impossible to uphold. We should not expect our athletes to be perfect in life and on the baseball field. We should not expect that just because Tiger Woods earns $100 million annually for endorsements that he is any different than the rest of us.

He is an extraordinarily talented golfer, and apparently also an adulterer. Should Gatorade end his endorsement deal because he likes to sleep around? Does his sleeping around affect his golf game or his personal life? Because to be honest, I don't care to know his personal life. I just want to see him pump his fists after hitting an almost impossible Eagle. I want to watch him hit a hole in one. In those moments, my spirit is lifted, even if just for a moment, at the beauty of human competition and sport.

Why do we expect perfection of others, of athletes, and not ourselves? Why is Tiger Woods any different than me? I don't expect perfection, I hope for it, knowing that even my hoping is futile. And I don't just wish for perfection in our athletes, I wish for it in our President, in our elected officials, in our teachers and surgeons and engineers. Could you imagine a world where no one erred? Where a doctor never misdiagnosed a patient, where a President didn't make promises on the campaign trail only to ignore them once he was elected? Where a pilot didn't fall asleep with 185 passengers on his plane? None of us is perfect, so why should an athlete be?

As Americans we love a comeback more than we love a fall from grace. We want to see the beaten down rider get back on his horse to win the Triple Crown. We want to be there when Michael Phelps bows his head for another Gold Medal in the next Olympics games. And you can bet the cheering will be louder than ever the next time Tiger sets foot on a golf course and wins it all.


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