Sports

Picking Splinters: The Legacy of Jackson & McNair

America loves its heroes. We idolize them, mimic them in the mirror when no one is looking and sometimes even live our lives attempting to follow in their footsteps. We put them on a pedestal, drown them with attention and bask in their glow.

America loves its heroes.

We idolize them, mimic them in the mirror when no one is looking and sometimes even live our lives attempting to follow in their footsteps. We put them on a pedestal, drown them with attention and bask in their glow. Maybe it’s because of that glow that we turn a blind eye to some of the less noble aspects of their lives.

The past few weeks have provided a pair of such examples with the untimely deaths of pop icon Michael Jackson and former AFC Champion quarterback Steve McNair. Yesterday, thousands attended Jackson’s memorial service, while thousands – if not millions – more watched on TV or over the Internet. It was a massive spectacle, befitting of a man who bore the title “King of Pop.” It also perfectly encapsulated just half of his story.

Likewise, a plethora of posthumous articles written about McNair recall his courage on the football field, his determination and his kind nature. But some of them omitted, or urged us to forget, a significant piece of his story.

No one wants to speak ill of the dead. Nor is it particularly fashionable to sit in judgment of the fallen. However, I do not believe you can properly look at the lives of Michael Jackson and Steve McNair without taking the bad with the good. For all of the inspiration and wonder Jackson gave the world, he also twice faced charges of child molestation, settling one case in 1994 and beating the other in 2005. In McNair’s case, it is increasingly likely that he was shot and killed due to his extramarital involvement with a 20-year-old girl, for whom authorities said he promised to leave his wife and four children.

In both cases, that’s pretty rough stuff to swallow. And while I am not equating the two men in life, misdeeds or death, I am struck by the similar desire to only focus on half of their life stories.

Jemele Hill authored a column Monday titled “Steve McNair’s Legacy Shouldn’t Be His Flaws.” Near the mid-portion, she writes “Behind every wonderful athlete lurks a very fallible human condition. And no matter how many football Sundays we spend with athletes, no matter how many wondrous tasks we see them performing, sports are only a brief snapshot of their life … In most cases, we never have a complete sense of who an athlete really is … they live in the real world, where they are free to make mistakes just like the rest of us.”

That shortened passage, briefly sums up the issue perfectly. We don’t know everything about everyone, but with the changing nature of media coverage, we continue to learn more and more about the lives and, often, flaws of our idols. Flaws that can shatter our conception of athletes or public figures we consider to be heroes.

Suddenly home run kings whose numbers we wore in Little League are drug users and cheats, presidents are womanizers and honest-to-God heroes are that much harder to come by.

Rather than continue that search for the truly good, it seems we’d rather cast out the dark parts of our existing idols. We are urged to remember the good, forget the bad.

But it is foolish to remember half of a story because the midpoint has a happy ending that sits better with our psyches, because it’s easier to laud a white knight than a gray one.

How many of us cheered when Kobe Bryant won the NBA title this year? How many were touched by his words at Michael Jackson’s service? Now, how many thought it was a little odd that Bryant, who himself faced charges of sexual misconduct with a 19-year-old, was anywhere near that scene?

It’s tough to reconcile, but that’s the way it goes in these modern times. We know things we probably never wanted to know, never wanted to associate with our heroes. Now we have to deal with that knowledge.

We can forgive their shortcomings, but I do not believe we should forget them. For better or for worse, your legacy involves all your actions, not just the ones that made you popular. That’s the way it is for the rest of us. So too should it be for heroes.

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