The notion of professional athlete as role model is a romantic one, born to children at the moment they watch their first home run, first touchdown, first three-point buzzer beater or first slapshot goal.
The heroes are those they see as infallible, who bring joy by their efforts on the battlefield. There is no notion, initially, of these athletes as thugs, criminals, or cheaters.
And then you have the last month in sports, where two of the best at their respective disciplines are going away for a while because they screwed up.
Ryan Braun cheated, which isn’t new and doesn’t particularly sting. But he did lie, he did throw a guy under the bus, and he did dupe an entire team and entire city – my hometown of Milwaukee – into believing he was the golden boy who could save baseball in Beertown. Instead, we all feel like drunks who had too much in the moment, enjoying his efforts on the field but now have awoke with a hangover the size of Bernie Brewer’s head.
Meanwhile Aaron Hernandez has been charged with first-degree murder. He starred on the field for the New England Patriots for three years, and was a key part of a generation of new tight ends who were changing the NFL in a way it hasn’t been given the increased passing attacks. Now, the aftermath and fallout has turned his name and his image completely toxic.
It’s with these two recent examples – the latest in the long line of stick-and-ball athletes who find a way to throw it away – that I wish more sports fans would look to racing drivers as their professional role models.
From an access standpoint, racing drivers in North America are far more reachable to the common fan than any in the four major sports. Think for a minute that you, as a fan, have the opportunity to walk the grid of the Indianapolis 500 – the single largest one-day sporting event – mere hours before the 33 drivers take the green flag. And throughout the month of May, or at any IZOD IndyCar Series event, you can brush shoulders with them at any moment in the paddock.
From a professional obligation standpoint, racing drivers have to be clean. Drivers so infrequently get arrested, have DUIs, or do lascivious acts away from their discipline that when you do, it’s a shock to the system. As for their jobs, they are racing inches apart from each other at 200 mph for two to three hours. It takes trust in the entirety of the field that they are all clean, not performance enhancing, to be able to make races safe, clean and enjoyable for the fans.
Now, granted, there is plenty of cheating that occurs in racing. But it’s not inherent in the drivers; it’s more performed by the crews. There are two old adages in racing: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” and also, “It’s our job to cheat, and it’s their job to catch us.”
In a homogenized and increased spec-car era of racing that permeates most levels of motorsports, the window for innovation is so small that performance gains have to be pursued in such tight areas. In NASCAR, it’s splitters and spoilers. In IndyCar, it’s dampers. In Formula One, it’s about finding aero tricks given the tight regulations. Go mere millimeters outside the regulations, and it’s penalties out the wazoo for you.
So in that respect, racing does have its link to stick-and-ball sports in that someone, somewhere is always trying to create a performance advantage. And sanctioning bodies make sure to crack down where possible.
But in terms of the participants themselves, most drivers have such an edge on most stick-and-ball sport athletes, it’s not even funny. Drivers take the time to appreciate their fans, via autograph sessions, fan forums, random moments and conversations and now, engaging via social media. They have to be clean to do their jobs accurately and safely.
They are still real people beyond the stereotype of being a standard, blasé corporate mouthpiece for whatever sponsor it is that supports them.
They are definitely greater role models for kids to look up to.