Because today was Labor Day and the rest of the world didn’t decide to focus on real problems or sports, ESPN today and he world at large decided to focus on Diana Nyad and her fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. What would possess somebody to do that I have no idea, but it’s a pretty incredible physical accomplishment.
What it is not, however, is heroic. When Buster Olney of ESPN decided to call Nyad a “superhero” for her feat, I thought that was, shall we say, a bit much.
Needless to say, when Olney retweeted that to his followers the usual type of responses came pouring in, my personal favorite being when ESPN radio personality Sarah Spain attacked my Catholic faith and accused me of downplaying Nyad’s feat because Nyad (who I have never heard of before today) was a lesbian.
At the bottom of the page you’ll see a Storify for all of the tweets I got in response, but I don’t want to focus on that and I don’t want to focus on Sarah Spain’s anti-Catholicism.
I want to ask about what a hero is?
Hero is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, often times in contexts in which nothing that the individual has done even remotely approaches a heroic level. Often times, as in the case of Diana Nyad, it comes in the context of athletics. Of course anybody who knows me knows that I am a huge sports fan but why do sports fans, why does our cultural, why does our modern society ascribe virtues of heroism to sports figures automatically without reason or context?
It isn’t just sports figures that get applied with this broad brush of heroism in times in which it is not deserved. We often see it applied to celebrities and, increasingly, to politicians as well. But why? While the definition of hero above, when broadly applied, does include somebody who is a “role model” when generally attribute the definition of hero as the 1st definition. But to me, swimming is not heroic. Far from it. Clearly what Diana Nyad accomplished is an amazing feat of physical stamina and endurance. But tell me exactly how a swimmer who has sponsors and a support team is doing anything heroic? Impressive yes, but not heroic.
Again I ask, why do we automatically ascribe heroic virtues to professional athletes? We are not short of heroes in society. There are many individuals who risk their lives and perform great feats of bravery every single day, such as our servicemembers, police officers, and firefighters. And that is not to say that there not athletes who themselves are heroic; Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens are two such examples of athletes who showed tremendous bravery, courage, and fortitude with the situations that they found themselves competing in and face with, and dealing with them with pride and honor.
When I think of heroes, I think of ordinary people who did extraordinary things for the benefit of not just themselves, but for the greater good. People like Robinson and Owens, and Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Saint Maximillian Kolbe, the passengers of Flight 93, or the personnel who ran into the World Trade Center on September 11th. Those folks are genuine heroes.
Compare the bravery of what they did with what the bravery of a professional swimmer….
What we have with the hero worship of Diana Nyad with her impressive, albeit not-at-all heroic feat shows how far we have fallen as a society with those who are held up for esteem and praise by those who are deemed to be the opinionmakers. Nyad’s feat is impressive and on par with that of many other folks who are extremely talented or gifted, but are ascribed heroic virtues without cause reason. And the fact that we continue to ascribe heroic virtues to politicians, celebrities, athletes and the like in this manner says more about where we are as American society than it ever could the people who are held up for such undeserved esteem…… EDIT: I encourage you to read our friend Bruce Godfrey’s excellent take on this.