EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 17, 2013

End of the Innocence: Tragically for our nation's youth, sports heroes are a dying breed

Tragically for our nation's youth, sports heroes are a dying breed

Michael Muldoon
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — “End of the Innocence

Tragically for our nation’s youth, sports heroes are a dying breed

Didn’t have a care in the world

With mommy and daddy standin’ by

But ‘happily ever after’ fails

And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales”

Don Henley’s End of the Innocence

When I was a grade schooler, my uncle, Warren Muldoon, gave me subscriptions to Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.

I was in heaven. I couldn’t sleep for a day or two before the magazines arrived each week. When they did, I’d read them from cover to cover. Quiz me on my math or English ... straight C’s. But I earned straight A’s in sports.

Those athletes were my heroes and their exploits provided a lifetime of cherished memories. Generations of fans enjoyed similarly blissful sports-filled childhoods.

I wouldn’t want to be a young sports fan today. The innocence is long gone, like a home run by Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.

Now, its nothing but drugs and debauchery. Cheating is the norm right down to the depressing mantra: “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying.”

And ESPN, TMZ, Entertainment Tonight and every fan with a cellphone camera is there to chronicle athletes’ glaring shortcomings. Sports talk radio provides around the clock cynicism and the Twitter world is no better.

The past few months have been particularly depressing as the sports gods haven’t left a speck of joy on the carcass that was sports innocence.

Uniquely heartwarming stories that would have inspired youths for generations are now anything but heartwarming.

Manti Te’o, the trailblazing Mormon savior from Hawaii who took a chance and travelled all the way to South Bend, Ind., saved the revered Notre Dame football program.

At last look, though, the Teo saga was a pathetic freak show of Springerian proportions.

The ultimate story of overcoming adversity was South African Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius advancing to the Olympic semifinals in the 400-meter run.

Faced with unimaginable adversity in life? The Blade Runner did it, why can’t I?!

Now he’s accused of murdering his super model girlfriend.

The great NFL stars are dying too young, often at their own hands as they can’t deal with the pain they masked so long to play their sport. America’s New Pastime is covered with blood. The most recent example the great linebacker Junior Seau, whose smile could melt icebergs.

The incomparable passing machine Dan Marino seemed to be the perfect family man with six children, two of which he adopted. He raised countless millions for charity. Now, he’s just another punching bag on the back pages of the tabloids. He tried to hide his girlfriend and the child they had out of wedlock. But these days even a mansion in England can’t avoid the media’s prying eyes.

Ray Lewis, part man, part machine. His Churchillian leadership skills could transform transfixed athletes into champions. Injuries which would cripple mere mortals? He came back from them like they were mere hang nails. ... as long as he had his trusty deer antler spray. What better way to symbolize the end of the innocence ... deer antler spray!

The NFL Films of my youth, propagandist that they may have been, chronicled the exploits of Lance “Bambi” Alworth but nothing on the deer’s antlers. Nobody killed this Bambi. Neither the media nor defenders the speedster left in his wake.

NFL Films was a product of the times. Like so many writers of so many past generations, they were mythmakers, not Woodward and Bernstein.

The world wept as Lance Armstrong became the greatest mountain climber since Edmund Hillary. Cancer be damned! It was the type of story Grantland Rice or Leigh Montville or Mitch Albom could have made into the greatest sports movie of all-time.

Alas, last time we saw him it was amid a puddle of crocodile tears on Oprah’s couch. Fraud, bully, liar, cheat, druggie.

Baseball Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Musial was a giant of the game who passed away a few weeks back at age 92. He joyfully played his harmonica for one and all. The instrument of the modern game is the fiddle. As in the players, coaches, executives and media played the proverbial fiddle as the game burned right in front of them.

Giant-headed, steroid-bloated behemoths put up bloated numbers in a game which for over a century prided itself on the sanctity of those beloved numbers. Nothing to see here, move along.

Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

Were the athletes perfect in bygone eras perfect? Of course not. As we later learned, DiMaggio was a prisoner to his fame and his media-created image. Ty Cobb was a horrible racist and a horrible person. Squeaky clean Steve Garvey was a philanderer and obviously Babe Ruth was, too.

Apparently, chicks have always dug the long ball.

Golf balls and baseballs. Tiger Woods would be a transcendent world figure, according to his overly proud father. While a great golfer, he certainly didn’t prove to be a great man, husband or father.

The great running back Jim Brown was a serial abuser of women.

But ignorance was bliss. If you found out about your hero’s shortcomings, it was in your mid-teens and it was with kid gloves. But now it’s like the killjoys who can’t wait to tell all the 6-year-olds in the neighborhood there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

And it’s hard not to believe our 21st century heroes aren’t more flawed. The family unit has broken down, youth/AAU sports are out of control and misguided fathers forfeit childhoods for the fool’s gold of sports stardom.

Marv Marinovich and Earl Woods would never be confused with Cliff Huxtable.

Our sports heroes are dead. What a tragedy for our children.

Follow Michael Muldoon on Twitter under the screen name @MullyET.