Hey, They're Athletes, Not Philosophers

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Even in this age of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," Americans still love to hate the rich. So when a guy who makes $6 million a year is caught on tape spitting on a man who wears a blue-collared shirt for a living, it's a sure bet that the spitter's fight for public redemption will be difficult, if not impossible.

That's what's facing Roberto Alomar, the Cleveland Indians second baseman who is widely considered one of the all-time great middle infielders. When the sun sets on his career, Alomar will most likely be remembered more for a regrettable — and highly regretted — 1996 spitting incident than for any of his on-the-field feats.

Alomar was the John Rocker of the 1996 election cycle, a baseball player who'd done something so socially reprehensible as to call for a national morality check and force political candidates to take sides. The vice presidential contenders of the day, Al Gore and Jack Kemp, sounded off on what a bad example Alomar, then with the Baltimore Orioles, set by spitting in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck. Likewise, both George W. Bush and Al Gore have denounced Rocker, the Atlanta Braves pitcher, for his well-publicized invectives against gays, ethnic minorities and foreigners.

This invites the question: Just when did athletes become America's moral yardsticks? It seems that at some point sports figures were transformed from the faultless giants of weekly newsreels to public dartboards who embody — and amplify — all that's wrong with society. Sure, other public figures, such as actors and politicians, are also more open to media censure than they were in decades past (just imagine the wreckage that would have ensued had the current Washington press corps been able to sink its hooks into the womanizing ways of JFK), but pro athletes, compared to politicians and entertainers, are less insulated from the press and far less media-savvy.

To see just how high the chips are stacked against pro athletes' generating positive off-the-field publicity, consider the happy ending lurking deep in the shadows of the Alomar-Hirschbeck saga. The season after the spitting incident, Alomar sought Hirschbeck out during a game, shook his hand and apologized. In the years since, Alomar has become a leading benefactor of the charity Hirschbeck established to research adrenoleukodystrophy, the brain disease inherited by his two sons. The player and ump now consider one another friends. During a game May 20, reporters spotted Alomar hugging 13-year-old Indians batboy Michael Hirschbeck, John's son, in the Indians dugout.

But while the spitting incident made national news, inspiring damning op-ed pieces across the land — Denver's Rocky Mountain News said the incident proves that "standards for personal behavior have been lowered so far that the bar's in the dirt" — coverage of these more typical Alomar activities has been sporadic at best. The image of Alomar spitting, a brief transgression that occurred in a moment of rage, appears to be what will endure.

Professional athletes may have brought much of the censure on themselves by changing their relationship with the fans. "There's a level of intolerance with athletes in general right now because of free agency and the fact that the average person can't relate to the salary professional athletes make," says Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "Not only are these guys making all of this money, but because of free agency they're always switching teams. It breeds resentment among fans."

Lapchick says a secondary, possibly unintentional, motive may lie behind the press's emphasis of the negative. "There's a political correctness in the press that dictates that white people don't say anything bad about people of color," says Lapchick, arguing that newspaper sports sections and nightly news sports segments offer the media a release valve for reporting the types of racially charged stories that have become taboo. "In the first 80 pages of a newspaper, writers feel they can't report anything that reflects badly on minorities. So on our sports pages we're regularly reading about athletes who commit violence against women, but the stories don't mention that over 8,000 such acts occur across the country each day. Or that the rate of spousal abuse among professional athletes is actually lower than it is for society at large."

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