This is from our industrious intern, Josh Eboch. —JS

. . . . .

To Be Frank

A moment of clarity in the murky world of professional sports

By Josh Eboch

Is it fair to hold athletes, by simple virtue of the size of their paychecks and their level of visibility, to proportionally high moral standards?

This month, Frank Deford, noted author and regular correspondent on HBO’s RealSports, leads a panel discussion on this controversial subject titled “Pros and Cons: Are Athletes Role Models?”

He is joined by College of Charleston men’s basketball coach Bobby Cremins, former N.C. State men’s basketball coach Les Robinson, and Olympic gold medalist and WNBA star Katrina McClain.

I recently talked to Deford about what our society demands of athletes on and off the field. Ironically, my call interrupted Roger Clemens’ televised denial of his alleged steroid use before a Congressional subcommittee.

When asked what he thought about the accusations surrounding the former New York Yankees’ pitcher, Deford was blunt.

“Clemens is lying,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense otherwise. He’s on the wrong side of all the key facts in the case.”

Isn’t all this representative of a serious breach of public trust on the part of athletes like Clemens, I asked?

“Not at all,” Frank said. “We turn to athletes because they are relatively simple. They’re young and they do amazing things with their bodies so it’s very easy to hold them up and admire them.

“But that doesn’t necessarily make them amazing people.”

He continued: “This is nothing new. Athletes have been guilty of all kinds of things over the years. The drugs are relatively new, but [athletes] have not traditionally been paragons of virtue.”

Then Deford turned the tables. He said though “we would hope [athletes] would command good lives,” as fans “we need to be a little more careful about making heroes out of these guys.”

Hmm.

Personal accountability as a two way street — this is a new one.

Easy as it is to place blame on young men who are often emotionally unprepared for the responsibilities of wealth and fame, if we want athletes to be better role models, we might have to stop rewarding their bad behavior.

Buying Michael Vick jerseys or Cowboys season tickets simply reinforces the belief that as long as huge profits can be made from an athlete’s talent regardless of his conduct, there is no need for the system to change.

But wait a second. Doesn’t all that money and attention leave athletes in some way personally accountable to society?

Not according to Frank. As usual, Deford was straightforward and pragmatic. “No,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. All they’re paid for is to play the game.

“They don’t have to be good people.”