Greg Jayne: Athletes may end up being false idols

Greg Jayne: Commentary

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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The lesson, as usual, is to not lionize sports figures while they are still alive.

Reputations and legacies are too fluid, too fragile, too unstable to be treated as though they are impenetrable. Human frailty is too vast to be regarded as being beyond the scope of possibility.

The latest example is Suzy Favor Hamilton, a three-time Olympian and one of the great middle-distance runners in American history.

Hamilton, 44, was exposed this week as a $600-an-hour Las Vegas prostitute, which might or might not matter to you. But it probably matters to her husband and to her 7-year-old daughter, and it probably matters to the Big Ten Conference, which annually hands out the Suzy Favor Award to the conference’s top female athlete.

Hamilton, when she was known as Suzy Favor, won nine NCAA titles and 23 Big Ten championships while running for the University of Wisconsin, earning the conference’s female athlete of the year award four times. The league was so impressed that it named the award in her honor.

That leaves the conference in a bind. I’m guessing a lot of athletes would be rather embarrassed at this point to receive the Suzy Favor Award, considering that we now know she is all too human.

And that is the lesson to be gleaned from the public revelations about Suzy Favor Hamilton. You would think that conferences and businesses and society would have learned that by now, yet we still see fit to build lasting monuments to people because of what they accomplish in the athletic arena.

Just 13 months ago, the Big Ten was prepared to present the winner of its inaugural football championship game with the Stagg-Paterno Trophy.

League officials removed Joe Paterno’s name in the wake of the pedophilia scandal that rocked Penn State.

Five months ago, Nike changed the now-ironic name of the Joe Paterno Child Development Center at its world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., following a report that detailed Paterno’s inaction regarding the scandal. At the same time, Penn State removed a statue of Paterno from outside its football stadium.

Three months later, Nike removed Lance Armstrong’s name from a campus building in the wake of “insurmountable evidence” he participated in doping.

Nike, meanwhile, continues to leave Tiger Woods’ name on a building at its headquarters, reflecting the difference between cheating on your sport and cheating on your spouse.

That is easily defendable, considering that while Woods might be a cad, his transgressions really had nothing to do with his sport.

They did, however, have much to do with his fame as an athlete. And that’s really the point here.

It is one thing to admire and support and cheer for athletes who can inspire us with their gifts and their perseverance. It is quite another to build icons to them. In the end, they are human, prone to failures and downfalls just like the rest of us.

With modern media and public intrusions, those failures are more likely than not to become public knowledge.

Whether or not that is fair is a debate for another time. But for now we can point out the errors of lionizing sports figures while they are still living, knowing that the bubble that is a reputation can be burst by the most surprising of revelations.

Or, on second thought, maybe we shouldn’t lionize sports figures at all.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. Follow him on Twitter: @col_gjayne