You shall not make unto you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
— Exodus 20:4
There’s little question Maimonides would not be pleased with how professional athletes are treated in today’s society.
Actually, there’s a pretty good chance he would be greatly upset with much of what we do these days, but I’ll leave that to the scholars.
The great rabbi was, among many things, a bit of an expert when it came to the topic of idolatry. There was no wishy-washiness in his interpretation of what we, as Jews, were supposed to do when it came to idol worship: It was a big-time no-no and we were commanded to destroy all idols.
I know that these days, much has been said and written about how athletes shouldn’t be role models. These high-achievers on the court or field can be admired for that ability and
accomplishments in their chosen field, but they should not be put up on a pedestal.
File that one under “easier said than done.” For while the right-minded folk might shout from the mountaintops about the dangers of looking up to someone solely because they’re fast or strong, or both, the message invariably gets knocked down by the 100-foot billboards of said athletes, drowned out by the massive advertising and marketing campaigns, bought out by the multi-million dollar contracts.
Maybe some have become jaded enough to not look up to these top performers in the world of sport, but all the soap-boxing in the world isn’t going to stop some from the younger generations from falling prey to these idols, looking with admiration at the gold and silver overlays and trim we are told we are forbidden to benefit from.
Truth be told, I think even those of us among the cynical set secretly want to believe in sports heroes again. Why else do people seem so genuinely disappointed when one falls from grace? We say we’re not shocked when Alex Rodriguez reveals he took performance-enhancing drugs, and maybe we’re not. But we also secretly, deep down, hope that a guy like Albert Pujols has done everything he has on the up and up.
We claim we’re desensitized to all of the pitfalls that seem to befall today’s spoiled professional athletes, yet when one hits the tabloid headlines instead of the sports pages, interest zooms. Sure, the 24-hour news cycle demands content constantly, but people tune in to see what’s gone wrong with the biggest stars in the sports arena.
There is some irony to all of this, of course. These people are idolized largely because of natural ability — something many feel is “God-given.” They are then given deity-like status because of this ability that was bestowed upon them. Is there then some cruel delight when they fall from that pedestal and show that they are, when you really think about it, human in terms of the ability to make poor choices and decisions?
Perhaps it’s good for us to see that these golden calves truly have no divine power. And there are various biblical stories that tell us what we should do with heroes gone bad (next on Jerry Springer).
If Adam was exiled from the Garden of Eden for tasting the forbidden fruit, what must we do with Tiger Woods, who evidently completely emptied the garden over the past few years?
Moses wasn’t allowed to cross over into Israel because of what, abusing his power as leader? The Bible isn’t big on second chances, so does that mean we shouldn’t give Roger Clemens or, right here in our backyard, Ben Roethlisberger, one? Typically, as sports fans, we have, often giving them more than that if their exploits on the field could lead to another championship.
If we listen to the second commandment, and Maimonides, we shouldn’t. Keep that in mind when ol’ number 7 comes back to the Black and Gold in a month or so.
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)