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PEDs, Fallen Heroes, and Nostalgia

August 5, 2013

Baseball’s problem with performance-enhancing drugs has reared its ugly head yet again.  Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was handed a 65-game suspension, and rumors of a possible lifetime ban for the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez swirled around the blogosphere like flies over a dead pigeon.  Players such as Braun and Rodriguez have fallen from grace, been branded as cheaters and liars.  And since it’s no secret that, despite Charles Barkley’s wishes, children idolize athletes, it’s only right to wonder what effect this wave of scandals will have on the kids.

Over at Pacific Standard, Brandon Sneed interviews Dr. Alan Kazdin of the Yale Parenting Center about that very subject.  Contrary to what one might believe, Dr. Kazdin claims that fallen heroes do not scar children:

It’s perhaps disappointing to realize, but a child won’t have endless nightmares over this.  A six-year-old in 10 years will hardly remember who A-Rod is.  Some psychologists pontificate on beliefs and what have you—I’m grounding the things I’m telling you in what the research shows.  And that is, children just have no reaction to the falling of heroes.  Just disappointment, but that’s the extent of the impact.  Because a minute later they replace the fallen hero with a new hero, and it’s all over.  Like, “Who was A-Rod, again?”  That’s how we work as people.

Dr. Kazdin’s perspective certainly doesn’t square up with how our culture dictates children react to fallen heroes.  The most famous example is the (likely apocryphal) story of the kid who cried, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” after Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other White Sox players were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series.  Whoever that kid was, he was surely heartbroken to see one of the best players in baseball tossed out the game.

But the more I think about it, the more Dr. Kazdin’s claim makes sense.  For one thing, we always joke about children having short attention spans.  If a child can move willy-nilly from one doll to another and then another, surely he can do so with sports heroes.  Children might have a favorite doll or a favorite athlete for some time, but astronauts will replace pull-string cowboys and hotshot third basemen will retire.  Hell, if toys somehow had dirty laundry it might be more traumatic.  A child probably has a more concrete relation with a toy than with an athlete.

Here’s another way to look at it.  The moral outrage that accompanies the Ryan Braun revelations is less about the deed and more about the lies.  No one is shocked that Braun took PEDs; they’re shocked because of how vehemently he denied taking them.  Lying ought to break the naive trust of a kid, right?  Well, not really.  You know how parents worry about their kids ending up in therapy if they pretend Santa Claus is real?  Yet we don’t see droves of Santa-related therapy cases, and that involves “deceit” which is, again, far more concrete than Braun’s.

So, whence this concern about how these fallen hero stories affect children?  Here’s my hypothesis: when a pundit asks, “Won’t somebody think of the children?” he is really asking, “Won’t somebody think of my childhood?”

Nostalgia is a powerful delusion: we tell ourselves that the past, especially our childhoods, were a far better time than the present.  It was an age when people got along, the economy didn’t suck, and our sports heroes were upright citizens.  Deep down we know that this is an incomplete view of the past, but it’s so tempting to fall into this mindset when confronted with the harsh complexities of the present.  I think there’s a subconscious fear among sports pundits that sooner or later, their own childhood heroes–the ones they only remember the good-parts version of–will somehow be tainted next.

When I was kid, I was a huge Yankees fan.  And, as I’m sure many young Yankees fan in the late ’90s/early ’00s did, I adored Derek Jeter.  He was my favorite player from just about Day 1.  I read this little inspirational biography he co-wrote from cover-to-cover over-and-over in grade school.  Hell, I remember being ecstatic that he was the Yankees player included in Backyard Baseball 2001.  And he has stayed scandal-free for pretty much his entire career (unless you count sabremetricians deriding his fielding ability).  As such, my memory of Jeter is almost entirely positive.

But imagine for a second that, at some point in time, he was found to have used steroids.  I can’t know this with certainty, but I think I’d be more heartbroken now, at 20, than say, at 10.  Should the news come out today, I’d have to chastise myself for placing someone on a pedestal for more than a decade.  I’d have to face the fact that my good-parts version of the past is wildly inaccurate.  But if the news broke back then, I could have just moved on to someone else.  Like, I think I really liked Jorge Posada, too.  I wouldn’t have the same “crisis” as a kid barely aware of the world than as an adult slightly-more aware of it.

So don’t fret about the kids when your hero inevitably falls.  They may be bummed for a bit, but they’ll get over it quick enough.  Do yourself a favor and take care of yourself.


From → Sports & Games

  1. I am glad to see Ryan Braun was suspended. Bravo. We need to keep this game clean for everyone. Bravo!

  2. I really miss the baseball of the seventies.

  3. Thank you for the post, for the help to look at the past more critically. The idealization of anything fools ourselves despite the beauty of nostalgia

  4. I enjoyed your post. My reaction to the drugs is mixed. If there was an operation (kind of like the Tommy John) and one could get better eye sight and it involved cutting and pain but afterwards you could see a one hundred a mile fast ball would it be determined to be wrong. If the players wish to drug themselves to heighten their abilities should I intervene with the thought that kids might do it. In fact many are taking drugs, including steroids to bulk up. It is happening in middle school and heavily in high school. We see advertized brain enhancers, and energy drinks. Should they be declared outlawed too. Like I said I have a mixed feeling about it. The lying as you stated is the thing but if you admit it you are guilty as charged so of course you are going to lie about it. Reminds me of the witch hunts of Salem. If you admitted you were a witch they burned you at the stake. If you said you were not you had to prove it and then they burned you at the stake. Either way you were toast.

    • I’m glad you brought up the use of PEDs in middle and high schools. I kind of regret not mentioning the potential for athletes to shape the behavior of children, although that’s a slightly different topic than the one I chose.

      • That’s what I would add, also. But not just the potential for use at the lower levels; the cumulative effects of cheating and lying have to be considered.

        In an odd sort of way, I think free agency has had that same type of effect, exposing greed over a long period of time. My older son (16) remembers a number of players who spent their entire careers with one team, but for my younger son (10), it’s just a romantic notion that any of his favorite players will be with the same team for an entire career. But I digress…

        Thanks for the post. Interesting reading.

  5. Agreed. I don’t think many kids have enough of a grasp on the real world for these sorts of incidents to “scar” them anyway. True disappointment requires more life experience than the average ten year-old has.

    We also have to look into the media’s role. It was largely the news and sports media that made men like Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez what they became in the minds of the public – all the endorsements and screen time they received when they weren’t even competing. And then the media pundits destroy these very same figures when it turned out that hey, they weren’t perfect human beings. They were liars and cheats, yes, but who built up their images to unrealistic heights?

    • The media certainly likes to tear down the figures they helped build up. But, then again, the public has an appetite for that kind of story arc. The fall of a great man is a key component of a tragic narrative, and a tragic narrative is a compelling one to watch.

  6. I love this. I was born in the early 50’s; both my brother and father religiously followed Mickey Mantle. Eventually, so did I. Years later I would learn of his fight with alcoholism. Somehow it didn’t shatter my allusions of his greatness, if anything, it allowed me to remove him from the pedestal I’d placed him upon and I accepted him as a human being, gifted with amazing talent, human and vulnerable.

  7. In my personal opinion this would not even be but a footnote in history were it not for a media that thrives on either salacious gossip or finding fault with someone. Do not let them tell either that they are doing this for the sanctity of the game. Old big media is largely irrelevant and that is why you see so much attention to this. I bet you that if another Penn St style crime happened, this story would take a back burner. It was the same with Trayvon and now he has become a footnote.

    But I really do enjoy when they fall from glass. Like Steven Glass who was actually fabricating stories which is indicative of how far the media will go. So, if we turn our backs while simultaneously make sure it never happens again, we will make the media go away and solve the problem. Right now it is a gang assault on a vulnerable has-been. His career was coming to an end.

    Lastly and most importantly, I do not trust Bud Selig. Remember he used to own the Brewers or I think Braun would have been taken to task far more severely. Bloggers are ripping the quill from the hands of the elite press and now they can only muse about the good old days cursing bloggers and assassinating a person’s character. (wrongly or rightly) This is not about some altruistic standard of behavior but a way to have more drama because that is what they think we want.

  8. Reblogged this on Joe Isuzu, we miss you! and commented:
    Getting at the essence of life through independent thinking and not going for a cheap thrill.

  9. It’s really good to know that undesirable attitudes are not tolerated.

  10. hdavidson21 permalink

    What you have to say is really interesting — in other words, you are showing how us adults, however old we may be, would be more shocked and heartbroken about PED usage than we would be if we were young kids. What does that say about our sports culture, where adults personally feel this pang of betrayal, as if they betrayed us personally, when our children could care less and would be much likely to forget about the incident? Isn’t it almost a damning and embarrassing thing to admit that us older, supposed-wiser adults take sports and athletes as seriously as we do?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love sports myself. I love my Chargers to death, regardless of how bad they may play or how many bone-headed pick sixes Rivers throws, but I find myself sometimes looking at myself in the mirror after getting worked up over a loss by the Chargers and thinking: What the fuck am I doing, taking this so seriously? I didn’t lose the game, but why am I acting like I did?

    Sports is a funny thing that becomes more and more entrenched as we get older, and your post highlights that. Thanks for the read!

    • You make great points and are correct. But this isn’t really about us the fan or even the players or the integrity of the game. This is about them! Those who exploit every story from every possible angle and who are not really fans of the game, so the collateral damage is not important to them. The media are a bunch of attention-whores.

  11. It’s all about the money and home runs. everyone watched when soca and mcguire were trying te break the home run record. ALL ABOUT MONEY FOR THEM. athletes need to be athletes not dopers!

  12. I really enjoyed reading this piece. I don’t know how in depth your sports knowledge is but have you ever thought about writing for a bigger publication? Check out our site, and let me know if writing for a site like this might interest you. I think you have real talent.

    • I feel honored by your interest, but I have not kept up with sports for the longest time. And with school coming up in a few weeks, I don’t foresee having much time to get back into the habit.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, though, and thanks again for the offer.

  13. I recently did an college essay on HGH. Besides more serious side effects HGH can cause Gynecomastia (enlarged men’s breasts); Imagine this. A-Rod running around the bases and having one of his boobs pop out of his bra following a dive into third base.

  14. easttnadvocare permalink

    What would Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris say to Alex Rodriguez? That’s my question.

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