John Kruk never looked like much of an athlete. He was a first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but as a teammate put it, he looked like a guy who drove a beer truck. His many diets were never able to trim his belly—"Don't worry," he once said. "I can always put the weight back on. Quickly." Despite his poor physique and bad habits he was a consistently good hitter, and ended his career with a lifetime .300 batting average.
One time he was sitting in a restaurant, eating a big meal while downing a couple of beers and smoking a cigarette, when a woman approached his table. She recognized him but said she was shocked, because she thought that he should be in training and that a professional athlete should take better care of himself.
Kruk leaned back and said, "I ain't an athlete, lady, I'm a baseball player."
The story reminds me of another quote, this one from basketball hall of famer Charles Barkley. He was one of the most dominating power forwards of his day (1990s), who used his strength and aggressiveness to intimidate opponents. He had no patience for those who believed athletes should be role models for kids. "A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail," he once said. "Should they be role models?"
As we come to another Super Bowl, we Christians note that the leaders of each team are devout believers—Colin Kaepernick on the 49ers and Ray Lewis on the Ravens (see the related CT story). Like any group with a strong self-identity, we Christians are proud that members of our tribe are star players in this national extravaganza. Not unexpectedly, when Christians become prominent in athletics, we are tempted to turn them into role models. We want them, like the lady wanted of John Kruk, to be models of athleticism, and like Charles Barkley comments, to be models of morality, as well.
But I suspect Charles Barkley had it right. Even Christian athletes, in the end, make for poor moral role models.
Glorious athletes in action
Our desire to lift them up as models of athleticism, morality—and religion—goes way back. The ancient Olympics were not merely athletic events but also religious festivals. The games were dedicated to the Greek god Zeus, and over time, the site of the games, Olympia, became worship central for the god of thunder. It included one of the largest Doric temples in Greece, and a 42-foot statue, made of gold and ivory, which sat on the throne of the temple. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
As the ancient historian Strabo put it, the Olympian games were considered "the greatest games in the world." Indeed, they were the Super Bowls of the ancient world. While there were no commercials specially created for the event, artists would cast wondrous works of art to celebrate the games and the athleticism displayed there. The most well-known perhaps is Myron's Diskobolos, or Discus Thrower—a thrower frozen just before he unwinds and hurls the discus. His physique is a picture of athletic beauty, a combination of power and grace that every athlete (if not John Kruk!) strives for.
When we see that power and grace in the field of play—well, it is a thing of wonder. We're witnessing human glory (that glory that is just a little less than the angels—Psalm 8). When we witness such a sight, it's almost impossible not to hope that this same human being might be a specimen of excellence in other arenas. Thus is born in us the desire for the athlete to be a moral role model.