There’s been a lot of talk lately about how athletes get paid. While that can be a productive conversation, I’m going to ask that for the remainder of this column you forget about gender pay gaps and revenue streams. Ignore the serious issues around sports for just a moment. Instead of analyzing an athlete’s net worth, let’s think about how athletes, and sports in general, affect their fans. Let’s consider the athletes we call our heroes.
Sports simplify life. They bring the binaries that we use to guide our existence — right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, success vs. failure — into distinct focus. A big reason so many people love sports is because of this analogous relationship with our lives. You know how people always ask you, “What’s the meaning of life?” and then you spend the rest of your existence trying to answer it? No such question plagues athletics. The point is clear: perform. The goal is to win, and maybe have fun along the way.
As much as this competition can be simple, it is not reductive. What a game loses in complexity it gains in transparency. We can see how hard our favorite athletes work. Each game tests their selflessness and courage and they carry us with them in their quest for triumph. The clarity of their action makes it easy for us to get emotionally invested. Once we’ve bought in, once we see these athletes as our role models and representatives, their impact cannot be quantified by numbers or dollar signs.
How can you measure the way someone makes you feel? I get it, we aren’t all in love with our favorite athletes. But these people have a larger impact on us than we realize. An incredible comeback leaves me buzzing for the rest of the day. A crushing loss drags me down, making me irritable. Sports are popular because they influence our emotions. The people pulling those manipulative marionette strings are our favorite athletes. Our heroes. Sometimes, we don’t even know who these people are until they do something that snatches the breath from our lungs.
I remember one such moment, where I was sitting in Stern dining hall, the TV pulling my eyes in close. There must have been 30 or 40 people in the small TV area, all of us joined by our rapt focus on Stanford’s men’s soccer team. We were in penalty kicks in the national championship game, and if our goalkeeper, Andrew Epstein, didn’t save this shot, the season was over. When he flinched and then dove to his left and saved the shot, the dining hall erupted. Everyone went nuts. Two plays later, he dove the other direction and stopped another shot, securing the championship. Gleeful shouts overflowed the room. You couldn’t hear a plate crash to the ground the sound of our joy was so deafening. And all this for one guy none of us had ever met falling over twice in a controlled manner. (No offense; it was dope.)
My little brother likes to make fun of me for getting so intense about a game, but if he had been in that room with me he would have understood why I care so much. He isn’t invested in the players or the teams, so the outcome to him is merely one number and then a smaller number. But if you care about the teams, about the players, about the cities and the people they represent, well, then the outcome isn’t a number at all. It’s a triumph or a tragedy. It is the battle between good and evil, and the side that prevails has told their fans that they are worthy.
It’s easy to get caught up in seeing sports for the result. Look at the NBA and its “ringzzz” culture, where the only measure of greatness is how many championships you can wear on your hand. Titles aren’t the only way to measure a player’s worthiness.
One of my favorite games I’ve ever watched is Kobe’s Farewell. I don’t like Kobe or the Lakers; I never have. Yet watching him give his soul to the game as he dropped 60 (60! On 50 shots!) on the Jazz in his final game sent tears down my cheeks. It was greatness; it was sacrifice. As both teams were eliminated from playoff contention, the game was meaningless. Until it wasn’t. Until Kobe turned the basketball into a hammer and sculpted a priceless homage to the game itself. It wasn’t pretty but gutsy. Kobe, with his last measure of devotion, honored the game and all its fans by hammering away until his last blow. He didn’t get a ring or any kind of award for that performance. Everyone who watched, however, was changed. And we all got a stirring memory to hold onto forever.
When Tiger Woods got arrested for DUI, a sadness hit me. It didn’t matter that Tiger went to Stanford or that he was my favorite golfer (I don’t really like golf, anyways). I got sad because Tiger was an icon. He was a legend whose air of greatness pulsed around him and his red Sunday shirt. Of course, Tiger has already fallen since those glory days. This DUI was less a shock and more a reminder that he has his problems. I felt sad because his arrest pointed to that void where the buzz of his heroism used to hum.
Tiger may not ever climb his way back to the pinnacle of his sport, just like Kobe will never again lace up his classic low-tops. In the life cycle of sports, eventually there comes death. The memories our heroes have given us, though, never die. The impact of athletes does not settle to a bottom line. Instead, it flows with us through the rest of our lives. And then, when we are old and grey, we can recount the epic stories (which by then, surely, we have exaggerated) that still bring us excitement. That’s why we care. Before we get back to discussing how athletes get paid, it is important to recognize how they are always worth so much more than any dollar amount.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.