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Truth or hero worship -- it's never an easy call

July 12, 2009|Jeff Jacobs | Jacobs is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

Diana Taurasi walked off the basketball court and was making her way through the gauntlet known as the Olympic mixed zone when she stopped for a couple of familiar faces. This was last August in Beijing, and Taurasi wore a big smile and an even bigger medal.

She hugged one guy with a media credential and turned toward me. I balked. Not because I wasn't happy for her. I was. And it certainly wasn't because I don't like Taurasi. Her joy of basketball and competition is irresistible.

No, I balked out of respect for the professional distance between a journalist and his subject. My reasoning always has been that when I write something glowing about a person, the subject should feel it is entirely legit and not because I was his or her buddy. Buddies are easy to find. The truth isn't.

Taurasi, of course, would have none of any perceived high-mindedness.

"Get over here, big guy," she said. "I just helped us win a gold medal." And with that I smiled and we squeezed. Taurasi is like Magic Johnson. You see them, you smile. It's impossible to resist. They have that effect on people. Taurasi had that effect on Connecticut. It is a gift.

That moment in China ran through my mind last week. Not only because of Taurasi's DUI citation in Arizona, but because of the Steve McNair tragedy in Nashville. Good grief, it was a week when depending what voice you listened to, Michael Jackson was either a pedophile or Martin Luther King.

It seems like the perfect week to examine the dilemma between what we want our reality of a high-profile athlete to be and what reality is. Do we want truth? The scandalous? Or hero worship for "our" teams? It is a dilemma we share as sports fans and sports reporters.

The easiest thing to do as a sports columnist is to criticize somebody you'll never meet, somebody who lives hundreds of miles away. You can look strong. You can sound moral. It requires so little bravery. And if it's somebody like Pacman Jones, you can rip without any fear of reader retribution. The most difficult thing to do is rip into somebody you know, admire and have to face the next day. Not to mention having to endure the wrath of hundreds of fans in your circulation area. It is the reason many of the more sobering truths come from national media outlets.

In short, it isn't hard to pick apart the unseemly parts of McNair's life from a distance. On Wednesday, Nashville police ruled that his 20-year-old girlfriend, distraught over mounting financial problems and her belief he had begun a second extramarital affair, murdered McNair in his sleep before committing suicide. An associate of McNair said his wife, Mechelle, knew nothing of his relationship with Sahel Kazemi.

McNair led a secret life. He not only was cheating on his wife, apparently he was cheating on his mistress. According to Kazemi's family, McNair misled her into thinking he was leaving his wife. The murder left four sons without a dad. This story not only is tragic, it destroys the perception of McNair as the perfect warrior, the unsullied family man and tireless charity worker.

Or does it?

Maybe you choose to remember McNair only as the toughest NFL quarterback ever, one who played through incredible pain, a fearless leader of men and a beacon of community service. Maybe you choose to ignore the ugly reality. Maybe it enrages you so much that you feel like boxing my ears in for even suggesting he was an adulterer and helped ruin a number of lives. It is your right. It is your emotions.

Maybe you're just waiting for the sentence where I rip Diana for loading up on booze until 2 a.m., loading the loaded gun known as her speeding car, and suggest that only through the grace of God did she escape the kind of tragic consequence that befell Donte Stallworth in Miami. Maybe you're just waiting for that sentence so you can unload your indignation toward anyone who dares to go after Taurasi with anything but the mildest of rebukes.

Connecticut women's fans love their players and that's great. They love them so much that sometimes it feels as if a lot of those fans think they are perfect in every way. They aren't. None of us is. At the very least, a lot of folks certainly don't want to read about the imperfections from some nasty columnist or even nastier anonymous Internet poster. Maybe life's reality doesn't interest you when you turn to the sports pages. Maybe you only want the roses for "our" teams.

Taurasi refused a breathalyzer and took a blood test; the blood-alcohol level hasn't been released. So I know . . . I know she could be found not guilty of drunk driving. Taurasi, however, has called the incident "unfortunate and embarrassing." To her credit, she already has embraced some degree of culpability.

But that's not my overriding point of this piece. My overriding point is, really, a question.

In our own lives, we handle the good with the bad, the bad with the good. We criticize ourselves and others and we accept human frailties. Can we do the same with sports heroes? More succinctly, can we do the same with sports heroes of "our" teams?

That's a question they're asking in Nashville. And among the unseemly details of a tragedy, it's not an easy one to answer.

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