by JL Wall

‘Days after the murder of the NFL quarterback Steve McNair, one typically remorseful sportswriter put it this way: “We throw out silly words, often referring to [athletes’] on-field efforts as ‘heroic.’ They are not heroes … Heroes drive around your town in patrol cars … Heroes teach our children … They try to raise their children the right way.”

But hero is not a job description. And those who say it is trivialize both heroism and sports. We need to stop shying away from the word hero where it is in fact due – and stop piously affixing it to so many worthy but unheroic people to whom it does not apply.’  — Rob Goodman

Heroism, he goes on to say, involves self-sacrifice of some sort — but it can’t only be sacrificial: the “heroism” of the teacher and police officer and parent is primarily based on this element alone. But where they fall short of true heroism has to do with the grandness, the sense that this person is or was truly larger-than-life.

“As for those alleged “real heroes,” there’s no doubt that some of what they do touches on the same kind of mythic heroism — the 9/11 firefighters’ brave rescue efforts, for instance.” [Emphasis mine.]

That phrase is telling and accurate. An heroic is not one without basis in fact, but it is one which (over time, at least) cannot be wholly contained within fact. The exceptionalism of the man and the deed must be of such a degree that it seemingly cannot be contained in anything that does not at least spill over into myth. Think of the “heroic” sports moments: books have been written about Carlton Fisk’s homerun in the 1975 World Series.

Somewhat oddly, Goodman associated this rather closely with boastfulness. Yes, the Greek archetypical heroes were braggarts and exceptionally concerned with their reputations, but, what with modern mass media, wouldn’t you think that it’s more than possible for a more modest hero to arise?

But boastfulness, especially when talking about the heroism of sports and athletes, serves as a solution to the matter of what is at stake. To the men on the field, their reputation – a concern that was certainly on the minds of those ancient archetypes. But reputation, while a frequent concern of the hero, is a poor substitute for the critical question in determining heroism: What is at stake in the deed? What rests on the outcome?

In their failure to sufficiently resolve this question, an athletic heroism can be nothing more than an approximation of heroism, and we begin to move even closer to the central problems of contemporary ideas of heroism. We look for it, broadly speaking, in two ways, each of which is wrong: first, in the more “democratic” in which anyone (or almost) has the potential to be a hero, in which a profession can be by its nature heroic without considering the acts or merits of individuals. It is a heroism that, to varying degrees, suffers from a decaying exceptionalism. Not everyone, and not anyone, can be a hero.

The second, however, is that which Goodman wants stand (again?) guiltlessly in place the democratic-heroic: the heroism of the athlete. But this is a heroism in which little is at stake except the personal “glory” of those involved. Yes, Akhilles was concerned with glory, and yes, Odysseus left the glory-less immortality of Ogygia for mortal life but immortal fame among humanity, but they gained that lasting kleos not because of exceptionalism and willingness to play the braggart, but because there was something at stake. Different example: Jodie Meeks puts up 54 points against Tennessee. Is the performance heroic, or simply “great”? I’m inclined to say the latter, even within the framework of sports-heroism. But let’s take that performance out of a mid-year game of a lost season, and put it instead in the championship game. You see — there’s more at stake, and that’s what would make the difference.

Athletes are approximations of heroes rather than the real thing not because they lack the right level of exceptionalism but because, even though there is something at stake for the men on the playing field, there is, at best, exceptionally little at stake for us.

So who are our heroes? Can they even be found in the present? I’m inclined to say no — but that doesn’t mean the present will fail to produce heroes. The hero exists at least partly in the realm of myth; there must be time for that myth to go. A hero can only become a hero in retrospect. In the present moment, we can only hunt for approximations of the individual hero. That the search tends to focus on realms in which nothing is at stake — in which the heroes don’t actually do anything that truly matters — says nothing comforting about society. In looking for those approximations in the present, it’s far better to turn to a Jackie Robinson than to a Michael Jordan, and a Neil Armstrong or John Glenn rather than a Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle.