25 Jan

Days after the NBA brawl broke out in Detroit, I was waiting for the 176  at Gate B, Union Station, enroute to New York for Thanksgiving. I looked at my Amtrak ticket, one more time, to make sure the DC to NY card was on top, not the other way around.

Then I saw Argent Mortgage’s poster boy Gold Medal Olympian Michael Phelps looking back at me from Amtrak’s folio advertising the “official sponsor’s” financial contribution to the Olympics. Phelps “superhuman performance” welcomed me to the “Argent Age” boasting “Phelps doesn’t break records, he shatters them… five U.S. national titles at one meet… five world records at another. We’re proud to have Michael as a member of Team Argent. Like everyone at Argent Mortgage he believes nothing is impossible….”

Except maybe staying a sober role model. Months after the Olympics, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. 

The media doesn’t make headlines just records them. Next was Detroit’s basketball game showcasing players beating up fans. Followed by the basketballer arrested in a bar fight. The list did not begin nor will it end there. Let’s not forget OJ. And that athletes are adults capable of making decisions of allowable behavior in their public and private lives.

The train ride between DC and New York is long enough to think about “superhuman performance.” I thought about the man I saw walking along M Street, legs atrophied from birth, using crutches to whip along at a timely clip; the jogger I saw on Memorial Day heading down Independence Avenue towards the Vietnam Wall, his head noticeably misproportioned to his body; the well dressed woman walking up Constitution towards Dupont Circle, her white cane swinging back and forth timed to her steps. My mind wandered back to the wheelchair bound Australian racing journalist in Dubai I watched shut out by able-bodied media crowding to get microphones closer to Sheik Mohammed. The Aussie offered, “You get used to it.”

In a world defining super heroism in athletes like Phelps, Argent’s championing “nothing is impossible” rang cruel. Lowered standards of role models make increasing “bad boy” behaviors bankable while everyday heroes struggle for acknowledgement, let alone reward.

Heroism should have little to do with an athlete’s running faster, swimming harder or throwing farther yet para-olympians facing everyday challenges rarely appear as faces on cereal boxes. Or in Team Argent ads. Few media attend the Special Olympics, even for archival purposes. Most people turn away from “different.” American Special Olympian Sean Dooley, winner of several gold medals in the recent Special  Olympics held in Ireland will never make a magazine cover. Maybe second or third page in his hometown paper.

True athletics is about traditional values. It wasn’t that long ago, for media reporting on the basketbrawl, to forget Pat Tillerman the football star died a hero in Iraq, to have made a comparison for sportsmanship “role model” to Tillerman fulfilling his civic duty rather than pursuing a lucrative sports career. Tillerman’s legacy, “it isn’t all about the money,” can become the sadly needed standard.


It is the rare team owner who reminds athletes of the lessons Hollywood decides every so often to bring to the screen in filmography tributes of mentors who promote scholastics, etiquette and sportsmanship in tandem with athletic prowess. “Remember The Titans,” starring Denzel Washington. And “Friday Night Lights.” 

Senior sports team owner Abe Pollin, in earlier interview, not remiss over superstar athletes he let go from his sports family says the athletes no longer subscribed to the morality and ethics their contract was predicated upon.

Maybe, athletes need vetting like match potentials on internet dating sites presented with qualifying tests. This will facilitate selecting athletes worthy of understanding the weight being a “role model” to fans, bears. Without disavowing charitable foundations set up by professional “bad boy” athletes, garnering them tax benefits not life lessons, ‘tis the season to give a damn and wonder out loud if fines on these professionals behaving badly can be targeted towards charities making a difference in the streets, offering opportunity through sports to disadvantaged children.

Watching the disappearing landscape through the train window, I touched my cheek where Irish Special Olympian Johnny Macdonald placed a kiss after I photographed him holding his gold medal for riding.  I looked once more at Phelps’ ad, “Welcome to the Argent Age,” before tossing it with my trash knowing Argent would never consider Johnny in their ad campaigns.

After all, true superheroes are born not manufactured.


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