I am too old to idolize professional athletes anymore -- long ago, I realized that the superstars who performed extraordinary acts on the fields, courts and arenas typically had feet of clay and did not really deserve much acclaim or adoration.
The list of pro players who have turned out to be hypocrites, frauds and/or lousy human beings is depressingly long.
Kirby Puckett (may he rest in peace) belied his lovable, ‘Teddy Bear’ image by being unmasked as a deeply disturbed man who sexually assaulted women.
Dwight Gooden, once the most exciting young talent in baseball and destined for Hall of Fame immortality, succumbed to the temptations of drugs (namely cocaine) and destroyed his career and almost his life.
Roger Clemens -- the greatest pitcher of his generation -- is not only very dumb, but also a chronic liar, a possible felon and permanently living in a delusionary fantasy world.
Michael Jordan -- perhaps the most spectacular athlete of the modern era -- is addicted to gambling, obsessed with money, and has the personality of a wart.
Kobe Bryant -- the 'presumed 'heir' to 'Air Jordan' -- is a suspected rapist, selfish beyond words, and reportedly a horrid human being.
Pete Rose -- the all-time 'hit king' -- is a gambling addict who repeatedly lied for decades until he finally “confessed” his many transgressions long after only a naive fool would believe his innocence. He's also a grotesque vulgarian.
Jim Brown -- the greatest football player in NFL history -- repeatedly abused women (while pretending to be a “civil rights activist”).
Mickey Mantle -- perhaps the most beloved American athlete in the post-war era -- was a horrid drunk, a serial womanizer and often inexplicably hostile to his adoring fans.
Willie Mays – widely acclaimed the all-around greatest baseball player in history – is, by many accounts, an embittered, unpleasant man.
You all know the sad, ugly, sordid tale of former football great O.J. Simpson.
None of these negative attributes erase the athletic skills and accomplishments of these aforementioned men – but they do harm our perceptions of their character.
Of course, some athletes and sports figure– including Charles Barkley, Joe Namath, Bobby Knight and Mike Ditka, among others -- presented themselves as either irascible ne’er-do-wells or sneering tough guys or shameless playboys from the get-go. Thus, in their cases, they can’t really “disappoint” anyone with their behavior since they aren’t hiding their true personalities.
If Ditka gets arrested for drunk driving (which he has), it just adds to his “macho, tough guy” image. If Barkley throws a man out the window of a bar (which he has), well, that fits with his “carefree, brawling partying” image.
(These types of athletes are probably taking the smart route in terms of public relations).
Which brings us to Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback who is having a magical year and who is probably the biggest sports star in the country right now.
Tebow, who is not necessarily the best quarterback in the NFL, is nonetheless its biggest celebrity and has performed some miracles on the gridiron with some breathtaking come-from-behind victories.
He also openly broadcasts his Christian faith and apparently has no vices that anyone has uncovered yet.
Already, he is a polarizing figure, since many fans and media types resent his “goody-goody” image. On the other hand, to his millions of admirers (including yours truly) he is a breath of fresh air -- a great athlete who appears to be kind, gentle, humble and unspoiled.
But that’s exactly where the problem lies.
When an athlete (or any public figure) establishes him or herself as “too good to be true”, the slightest blemish on that person will be greatly exaggerated and likely ruin their reputation. Those who hate Tebow already will celebrate with glee if it turns out that he’s a fake and hypocrite. Those who love Tebow will either forgive him for a few transgressions, or bitterly denounce him.
Tebow is only 24 years old, he will have many opportunities to either prove his doubters wrong or disappoint his admirers. I can only hope that he really is a good a person as he seems.
But first he has to beat the Patriots this weekend in order to remain relevant.