Temptation and Athletes

'It's a shame," said my barber, Larry, as we picked up on Lawrence Taylor's arrest for buying a packet of cocaine from a government agent in an Atlanta sting operation. "He was such a great player. He had the world in his fist."

Now, the barbershop as an American institution is not a place to elicit much sympathy. Respect for family and the missus may be pro forma. But in sports and politics no one is given any quarter. Individual athletes get respect for what they do; in this barbershop, not even the Boston teams get a free fan-loyalty ride.

So it was interesting that Taylor, the recently retired linebacker for the New York Giants, whom we had seen seriously injure Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann with one crushing tackle, would at least get the benefit of a "too bad'' call on his arrest.

The conversation quickly turned to Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, whose presence in a hotel room with a friend, two women, and drugs is under investigation; and Butch Hobson, the former Red Sox manager charged when a friend, from whom Hobson was expecting payment for a debt, mailed him a packet of cocaine.

This is not to judge the matter of the guilt, setup, or innocence of any of these sports figures. Let's hope that they're all found clean. But it is to acknowledge that as citizens we feel something like a punch when we hear of people we "know" as gladiators, people of remarkable gifts, challenged if not shattered, either by drugs per se or by some all-to-common process.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the handsome youth who, after the death of Echo, is transfixed by his own image in a spring. (She pines away until only her voice is left, because Narcissus pays no attention to her.) He is so taken with his reflected likeness that he is lulled to sleep, falls into the pool, and drowns. The gods, only somewhat less sympathetic than a barbershop, turn him into the lovely narcissus flower in remembrance.

Narcotics as physical substances lull people to sleep. They encourage a subjective sense of exceptionalism that can blind them to quite ordinary risks. What is the narcotic effect on star athletes of fame, wealth, and the stats-based knowledge that they are the best at what they do?

That Taylor was targeted in a sting operation does prompt a few questions. Was there prior information that led agents to tempt him in a public situation? How should an agent argue whether to approach a celebrity? Flip a coin? Target celebrities more than others, as object lessons? Also, should the government be in the sting business? Or is it better on balance that the government taint the delivery system with the risk of arrest as a deterrent? And when minorities are involved, should the matter of race be raised?

To what degree does the system of sports as an enterprise, getting overwhelming and symbiotic coverage in the media, constitute the pool in which Narcissus sees his image? Do we think to worry that all this sports television, with the sponsors buying time and people reading about the games the next day in the papers, is creating a cash flow beyond the norms of daily needs, the surfeit inviting temptation?

"Hey, he should have known better!" is a common commentary. "He will have lawyers to get him out of it."

But as a barbershop citizen, whose hair and opinions grow like anyone else's, I am entitled to feel a bit queasy at the falling of heroes. If we cannot match our immortals on the playing field, as spectacle is meant to impress upon us, at least we can hope to learn from their experience as mere mortals, where we meet on the parking lot.

Does our very fandom tempt them?

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