When I was a kid, it mattered very much to me that my sports heroes were not only gifted performers, but also that they were, for the most part, genuinely nice people. I liked Magic Johnson in part because he smiled so much. Because he seemed friendly and big-hearted, which was sort of an idealized version of myself -- a 6-foot-9 point guard with uncanny court vision and a genuine joie de vivre about playing professional basketball.
There was a certain naivety to that approach, I realize now. I suppose it didn't matter whether or not Magic was a good guy, just that he entertained me as a basketball fan and was successful doing it. But I've never completely abandoned that sentiment. In general, I'm still drawn to athletes who are thoughtful, worldly, introspective and kind. It's still a bit of a projection on my part. I tend to think of myself in those terms (rightly or wrongly), and so when I recognize them in a professional athlete, I'm more inclined to pull for them or follow their career.
These thoughts were bouncing around in my head this morning after I saw the unexpected (but not entirely surprising) news that the Ravens decided to cut defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, one of my favorite Ravens because he is wise beyond the gridiron. (I wrote a story last year about his budding career as a screenwriter, and when he does speak with the media, he's one of the most honest quotes in the locker room.) It seems likely that Pryce will be re-signed to the team in a week (the Ravens aren't even cleaning out his locker) but you never know in the NFL. When you're not the player you once were (and I think Pryce would not object to that statement) nothing is certain about the turn your career will take.
It matters to me that Pryce is a good guy because, as a media person, it's sometimes difficult to deal with athletes who have contempt for what they see as "little people." But for fans, I wonder how much it matters anymore. There is such a disconnect between the fan and the player these days -- the days of Johnny Unitas and the rest of the Colts sitting elbow to elbow with fans at Club 4100 are long gone and they're not coming back -- that an athlete's personality seems to matter less and less as long as he produces. There is likely at least some Ravens fans out there saying "I don't really care if he's a nice guy. Right now, I'll take a much younger jerk who can still get to the quarterback."
It's part of the reason, I think, behind the rise of sabermetics in baseball. Character, admittedly, can be vastly overvalued by both media and fans, especially when it's used to justify an athlete holding onto his place in the line-up despite poor production. You don't have to be a nice guy, or a leader, to be a good player, especially in professional sports. It's nice when both qualities are present -- Ray Rice is a good example -- but hardly necessary for success. Sometimes the very qualities that make an athlete an exceptional competitor are the same qualities that make him not such a nice person. The guy who is a jerk or a criminal is just less likely to get the benefit of doubt. If you focus primarily on statistics, as sabermetrics does, you take something that isn't quantifiable like character out of the equation.
If you're never going to meet an athlete anyway, if he's barely a part of your community -- not even living there in the off-season and interacting with fans only when he drives to the stadium in his Hummer -- does it matter whether he's a good person or not? That he's not a meat head or an egomaniac? Maybe not.
Certainly part of Cal Ripken's appeal in Baltimore had something to do with the fact that he carried himself with humility and class. Are those days fading away? And is that necessarily a bad thing?