Meltzner: Tom Brady finally retired — athlete worship should do the same

Former+New+England+Patriots+quarterback+Tom+Brady+%2812%29+celebrates+with+the+Vince+Lombardi+Trophy+after+defeating+the+Atlanta+Falcons+during+Super+Bowl+LI+at+NRG+Stadium+Feb.+5%2C+2017.+Mandatory+credit%3A+Mark+J.+Rebilas+%E2%80%94+USA+TODAY+Sports

Collegian | Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium Feb. 5, 2017. Mandatory credit: Mark J. Rebilas — USA TODAY Sports

JD Meltzner, Opinion Editor

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Those of us who are familiar with the sporting world are also familiar with the immense impact of the recent retirement of Tom Brady from the NFL. Even those who are unfamiliar with the sporting world are likely familiar with the weight he carried in the sporting community.

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You do not have to love sports to know Brady’s name, and this is because the culture surrounding athletes encourages hero worship on a level that goes beyond the world of sports to permeate the entire sphere of popular culture.

Brady is merely the latest on a long list of athletes who gained a near-fanatical fan base over the course of their careers. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, Ray Lewis all of them were at the top of their game, living manifestations of athletic prowess and willpower, and yet they also have all been involved in controversy. 

So why do these athletes, along with many other similar cases, still garner such levels of hero worship, despite there being clear discrepancies in these athletes’ moral character? The answer lies in the vicious hero-worship culture prominent in modern society: a culture that forces athletes into the threshold of fame, lifting them above the common person as a new-age Ubermensch ideal, only to revel in their failure the second a mistake is made. 

This is an unbelievably damaging culture for athletes themselves as well as the fans who contribute to the hero worship. In terms of athletes, the damage comes from the absurd public idea that the athletic prowess and perfection of these men and women translates to prowess and perfection in all other walks of life. 

“One can easily see how hero worship at a time in life when so much self-discovery is already at hand could lead to fractured identities in young adults.”

It is a habit of culture and society, especially of the American people, to become personally attached to athlete-heroes because of their amazing feats in their respective sports. We often believe these people owe us the service of them living a model lifestyle at all times.

When athlete-heroes slip up off the golden path we created for them, we scrutinize every aspect of their lives, but in reality, we need to realize these athletes are merely role models in their sport, and athletic greatness does not translate to moral impunity, nor did it ever.

To return to the case of Brady, his recent retirement was widely received as the loss of a legend by the sports world, with talking heads and analysts across all sports media networks lauding the man as an almost mythical figure. Yet others recall his history of malfeasance — in both the realms of sports and life — and consider whether his legacy is justified. 

Through this constant consideration of athlete-heroes and this constant weighing of their right to be our heroes, one can see the extremely damaging nature of the athletic hero-worship culture on the very fans who foster it.

Psychologically, the obsessive tendencies that come along with toxic levels of hero worship can be very damaging to the psyche of fans. The unhealthy nature of such intense parasocial relationships can cause sports super fans — obsessive fans — to suffer from “anxiety, depression, poor mental health and … social dysfunction,” according to Psychology Today. This is even more prominent in adolescents, and one can easily see how hero worship at a time in life when so much self-discovery is already at hand could lead to fractured identities in young adults. 

In light of Brady — perhaps the best living example of athletic hero-worship culture — retiring, I believe that we as a society should take this opportunity to reassess our obsessions with athletes and consider how this obsessive societal culture is both damaging to the athletes we worship and to us, the fans. Brady said goodbye to the sports world, and it’s time for hero worship to do the same.

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Reach JD Meltzner at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @jd_meltzner.