Looking for a hero? Check the backyard

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2007

For anyone out there reading the headlines about Michael Vick's dog fighting charges or Barry Bonds' drug allegations and wondering where all the heros have gone, we have an answer:

They're in the central Kenai Peninsula.

The area had the privilege of hosting the Alaska State Cup soccer tournament, part of the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series. Eighty-five teams of youth soccer players, from the under-12 age group up to under-19, converged on Kenai and Soldotna this week, along with an army of parents, coaches, spectators and volunteers.

The result was a week filled with athleticism, drive, teamwork, some stand-out plays, some heartbreaking ones, wins, losses and the excitement and disappointment that goes with them. In short, it was a week of what's best about sports, made possible by the support of coaches, families, fans, businesses and volunteers. It was refreshing to see in light of what's been going on at the professional level lately:

* Michael Vick, quarterback for the Atlantic Falcons, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to illegal dog fighting at his Smithfield, Va., home.

* Barry Bonds, the slugger for the San Francisco Giants, recently broke Hank Aaron's record of 755 career home runs by hitting his 756th in a game Tuesday, all the while shadowed by allegations of steroid use.

* Tour de France standouts, from Lance Armstrong to this year's winner, Alberto Contador of Spain, have been dogged by doping rumors, and at one point in this year's race then-leader Michael Rasmussen was pulled from competition over charges of evading drug testing.

Each new scandal makes it that much more difficult for young people to find someone to look up to who's actually worthy of the attention.

That's not to say there aren't any decent role models on the rosters of professional sports teams, or that one misdeed means an athlete isn't still a decent person, but it is getting more difficult to look past the scandals to find the stars who haven't been tarnished.

Idolization of sports stars is nothing new it's been happening since strength and quick reflexes were recognized as being worthy of notoriety. At least as far back as the first Olympics in ancient Greece there were famous athletes and legions of eager youngsters watching each accomplishment determined to be just like them when they grew up.

Fast-forward to Western culture today, and the public's interest in sports stars and other celebrities has grown exponentially, and with it the media's ability to meet the public's demand for any tidbit of news or gossip about them.

More and more that information seems to be negative drug scandals, criminal charges, affairs, bigoted comments, cheating, etc.

It could be that sports celebrities have always behaved this badly and we're just more aware of it now because it's harder for them to hide it. After all, this generation certainly isn't the first to have some of their favorite players fall from grace.

Or it could be that the special attention and do-whatever-you-want-and-we'll-still-pay-to-watch-you status the public bestows upon famous athletes has gone to their heads and they've decided they don't have to be decent human beings anymore.

The sad truth is, they don't. Michael Vick is more of a household name now than he was before the charges. And allegations against Barry Bonds haven't kept him from knocking Hank Aaron's record out of the ballpark. In a culture where any press is good press and a scandal gets more attention than good deeds, bad behavior only enhances an athlete's celebrity status.

Meanwhile the young fans who buy the posters, jerseys, trading cards and endorsed tennis shoes soak it all up the good with the bad.

That's the problem with choosing heroes from the credits of movies or rosters or pro sports teams. Those people aren't famous because of good morals, clean police records or community service projects. In examining every move on the basketball court, ice rink, football field and baseball diamond, kids see the amazing plays, but unfortunately they also see the bad attitudes, poor choices and outright debauchery that sometimes go with them.

Celebrating heroes on the local sports level can provide kids with a needed alternative to the inflated egos and deflated judgement available on the national level. That's why it's so great for events like the Alaska State Cup soccer tournament to be held on the Kenai Peninsula. It's a boon to the community in the economic sense to have so many people come to town. And it's an even greater benefit for the players and young spectators to see the coaches working hard so their team can learn, enjoy and succeed at the game; the volunteers spending their free time making the tournament happen; and the fans cheering just as loudly for a missed goal as for a made one.

It's a good thing in this day and age of sports scandals and controversies that finding someone to look up to doesn't have to involve looking at the TV; they're in our own backyard.

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