- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

When did it change for the American sports hero?

When did the athletes who had become larger-than-life folk figures turn into mere mortals and disappoint us?

And when did we as a nation stop being disappointed?

The furor surrounding the photo of Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from a bong followed by the news that Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s biggest star, tested positive for steroids has sparked debate and created confusion for fans who seemingly get wounded every day with bad news about fallen idols.

But are they heroes anymore?

Paul Simon wrote “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you” well before Richard Ben Cramer’s damning book about the Yankee icon. But in the minds of many, the song might be even more of a hit today if he’d written it after those details emerged.

“I think you always have it in your mind that you would like them to be ideal heroes who live up to an image that is larger than life,” said Paul Hecton, one of the owners and operators of the Babylon Futbol Cafe in Falls Church. “But I recognize that they are just men, human beings. And I think the ones who accomplished enough get some leeway. I don’t think what has happened to Michael Phelps has tarnished anything he has done. And likewise with A-Rod.”

Some fans have lower and more realistic expectations of their favorite athletes.

“For me, none of them are heroes,” said Francene Hudson of Fairfax, who was at the cafe with a large crowd watching the USA-Mexico World Cup qualifying soccer match. “My parents are my heroes. They are human.”

But Kellogg’s didn’t put Phelps, a Baltimore native, on its cereal boxes because he is human. It did it because he is superhuman, a young man who brought home a record eight gold medals from the Beijing Olympics last summer.

Some fans can live with the failings of these athletes. Others - parents who look to them as role models for their children, for example - cannot.

“I judge the players for what they do on the field,” Ms. Hudson said. “However, a lot of kids look up to them, so they should walk the straight and narrow. If I was making that kind of money, I wouldn’t chew bubble gum the wrong way.”

Money - that’s why Phelps and Rodriguez went into damage control, issuing public apologies. That was about protecting their marketing and endorsement base as much as anything.

Those apologies may prove to be too little, too late. Phelps was dropped by Kellogg’s, though there has yet to be any fallout from A-Rod’s steroid confession.

“This is a very forgiving and somewhat jaded society,” said John Maroon, president of Maroon PR, whose clients include baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken and NBA star Carmelo Anthony. “Off-the-field transgressions don’t have the negative impact that they once did. That said, it oftentimes depends on how the players are marketed. The more an athlete is presented as all-American, the farther they can fall when they stumble. Generally, the public understands one misstep, but repeated failings have a negative long-term impact on a brand.”

But what blurs the line now is that some of these transgressions - Rodriguez’s steroid use, Miguel Tejada’s guilty plea to lying to Congress about steroids, the federal investigation into Roger Clemens, the upcoming perjury trial of Barry Bonds - relate to what’s happening on the field, directly affecting the games fans love.

Former Redskins tight end Rick “Doc” Walker, co-host of “The Locker Room” radio program on ESPN 980, believes fans would just as soon block out all the questions about lying, cheating, drugs and other sins.

“Whether it is scuffing the ball, corking the bat, shooting something to make you stronger, when it comes down to it, we want our guys to play in the games,” Mr. Walker said. “That is the overriding consensus. If Bonds came back tomorrow and comes to play the Nationals, I am the first guy at the ballpark and waiting to see his at-bat.”

Kelly Swanson of Swanson Communications, a firm that represents athletes, doesn’t see how the daily menu of scandal is hurting franchises at the box office.

“Sports teams and venues are still a very lucrative business,” Ms. Swanson said. “I don’t think baseball fans have stopped going to the ballpark because of the unfortunate nightmare America’s pastime is experiencing at the moment. I think fans are aware of what is going on, but at the end of the day, does that stop them from going to the ballpark? I don’t think so.”

They may come to see them play, but will they buy the products the stars are pushing? These are two different fields - the field of play and the field of marketing.

Steve Winter of the Falls Church-based Brotman Winter Fried Communications, which handles athletes and does public relations work for local events, thinks athletes who wants to protect their marketing image must make sure they stay within the boundaries - whatever the boundaries are in these changing times.

“I think you can get pretty close to the line, but as long as you don’t cross that line, you’re OK from an endorsement perspective,” Mr. Winter said. “Once you cross that line (i.e., any athlete that admits to steroids use) is where he (or she) definitely becomes persona non-grata. Michael Phelps will probably have a hard time securing new sponsors for some time at this point.”

But then there’s a player such as Kobe Bryant. The Los Angeles Lakers star became persona non grata after he was charged with raping a woman in a Colorado hotel room in 2003. The charges were dropped when the woman refused to testify, and a civil suit was settled out of court. Still, Bryant’s image took a devastating hit.

Now, less than six years later, Bryant is the toast of the NBA. Arguably the league’s best player, Bryant won his first NBA Most Valuable Player award last season.

“He went through some very public indiscretions,” Mr. Walker said. “But now he is back on top in the NBA - not maybe Madison Avenue, but he is not hurting for endorsements. He has the No. 1 selling jersey. Here is a man who went overseas representing the USA [on the gold medal team in Beijing] and was revered by people all over the world.”

Sometimes bad is even good.

Fans and endorsers are attracted by the bad boys.

“You do have a lot of people that like the bad boys, the ones that have their own rules and still perform on the field,” said Dwayne Napoleon of Fairfax, part of the crowd watching the soccer match at Babylon cafe.

There may be no better example of that than tattoo-covered, heavily pierced Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star who pitched Nikes and wound up featured in McDonald’s commercials in the Chicago area during his playing days with the Bulls.

There was a commercial last year featuring four athletes posing as wannabe rock stars, who, as a rule, embrace the bad-boy image.

The Guitar Hero World Tour video game spot featured Phelps, Rodriguez, Bryant and Tony Hawk playing the game while doing an imitation of Tom Cruise’s performance to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” in the film “Risky Business.”

That may be one product that didn’t flinch recently during the news of Phelps’ marijuana use and Rodriguez’s steroid confession. It may have given them stage cred.

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