Since I can remember I have always loved Dikembe Mutombo. Everyone who knows me knows this fact. I have been asked countless times, “why the hell do you love Mutombo so much?” by my friends, and even my family. My answer was always, “I don’t know, I just always have.” Now I know why. Yesterday an article was posted on Slamonline.com about how Dikembe Mutombo was involved in a gold scam in his native Congo. Apparently he was trying to sell over 1,000 pounds of gold for $10 million dollars. However, this act is illegal in the Congo because of mining laws and the mafia-like militias that usually get involved with transactions like this. Although it could not be proven that Mutombo was actually involved, his name was implicated as the man behind it all. When I read this, I was hurt. I actually felt like Mutombo had let me down. Then I realized why I liked him so much in the first place. Not only was he an athlete, but he was someone I could look up to outside of athletics. He has made tireless efforts to help the Congo and won countless awards for his actions. He has been acknowledged as the “Most Caring Athlete” both by USA Weekend and The Sporting News. He has been recognized by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for his work in Africa. I look up to him because he genuinely cares about others. The things he does are not just PR stunts to get recognition. This is why the gold scam both surprised and disappointed me. It made me wonder if, deep down, all athletes are just money hungry and greedy. As I thought about it some more, I realized the truth.
The athletes we look up to are role models for all the wrong reasons. They are idolized for their athletic achievements and not for who they are as human beings. We look up to them and want to be like them because as professional athletes, they represent what we want to be. However, they use their fame for their own greed instead of as a platform to help others. In the NBA there are many examples of athletes that are looked up to for their athletic abilities, while their human abilities are looked past. Kobe Bryant was accused of rape. Michael Jordan is an avid gambler. Jason Kidd physically abused his wife. LeBron James never went to college. If it wasn’t for their athletic talents, these people would not be looked up to. I think this is why I was so enamored by Mutombo. Not only was he exciting, blocking shots and wagging his finger at his opponent afterward, but he was a good human being. He was a humanitarian, someone who was actually using his fame for good. How anyone could root for players like Kobe Bryant who had committed such egregious acts is beyond me. But the players I root for are not without fault in all of this. Take a look at my favorite football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their top wide receiver was kicked off of the Syracuse football team his junior year for academic dishonesty. Their top running back was suspended from Oregon University for punching a Boise State player in the face after a game. Cornerback Aqib Talib was accused of shooting his sister’s boyfriend. Safety Tanard Jackson was suspended for an entire year for failing the league’s substance abuse policy for a third time. The list goes on and on. Yet I find myself rooting for them week in and week out, people who would most likely be looked down upon as degenerate lowlifes if not for their athletic ability. Why? Why do they get a pass when the rest of society doesn’t?
It’s because sports are an escape. An escape from reality, an escape from work and politics, an escape from wars and crime, an escape from school, an escape from death and everything else. We don’t want sports to intertwine with our reality because, in reality, sports just aren’t that important. But we make them important and we attach ourselves to our favorite teams and our favorite players. We feel sadness when they lose; we feel joy when they win. We attach ourselves to them and try to convince others that our team is the best. The fact that we call our favorite teams “our team” speaks volumes as we have no ownership or involvement in any way with the team, other than being a fan. But to us, being a fan is everything. And this is why we look past the personal failures of the players on “our team” and find ourselves rooting for them no matter what. This is why I will always be able to root for a guy who was involved in a $10 million dollar gold scam and not give a damn. Our role models are role models for all the wrong reasons, but they also provide us with an escape. The ugly truth may not be so ugly after all.