"But in an individual sport, where the supporting cast is
invisible, publicizing foibles, especially after a
magnificent career like Agassi’s, comes off as peculiar
self-promotion in the absence of recent adulation. Our
heroes should not seek praise for their mistakes."
I am a world-class athlete for two reasons. First, I am blessed with a ridiculous amount of talent that my parents were smart enough to navigate into a sport tailor-made for someone like me. And second, I ignored all else for a period of time in favor of training, diet, and refined focus, all to the betterment of my ability. Early in my career, say between the ages of 18 and 24, this served me incredibly well and I excelled. But my performance fell off for a period after that. There was a failed marriage, some off-color remarks in the press, and more than a few losses. A hiatus followed, along with a new and larger waist size. I told everyone that an injury -- nothing serious, perhaps a wrist or bum hip-- brought me low. After a lengthy break, I worked hard and returned to form, winning several championships until injury forced my retirement in my mid-30s. This is my story, and I am sticking to it until I am paid a great sum to tell the real story…
The vague outline above has become the standard tale for retired athletes and a storyline that Andre Agassi’s new autobiography, Open, follows closely. In his tell-all, Agassi follows this now familiar pattern. The buzz involves his admitted crystal methamphetamine use during a calamitous downturn in his career. In 1997 he plummeted to number 141 in the rankings after having spent the better part of his career in the top 5, including a stint at number 1. The conventional wisdom connected Agassi’s bad luck to a lame wrist and a bad marriage to Brooke Shields.
According to that same wisdom, medical attention, a grueling fitness regime, and a divorce helped bring Agassi greater success than he had prior to 1997. Until the end of his career in 2006, Agassi was widely regarded as the sage of tennis, regularly winning Grand Slams into his mid-thirties. Agassi’s story became the classic testament that hard work and dedication can bring one to new heights, even after the nearly complete derailment of a career. In short, it was the story of a modern day hero. This was the all-American plotline we identify with and appreciate most.
But with Agassi’s confessed drug-use his status as a hero has become confused. Was it the injury and the wrecked marriage, or simply bad choices that threw his career off course? Most of us default to the latter, making Agassi’s low point feel more artificial and less sincere. Slumps are a great part of sports, but we demand that they derive from a genuine human struggle. Recover from a rotten marriage, an injury, or simply shattered confidence and we adore you, but give us drugs, steroids, or an overcharged libido and we are turned off. We may still admire the performance, but not the performer. When our heroes go public with these dark secrets it throws their heroism into question.
Agassi’s book brings into focus this current confessional phase in professional athletics, where it has become nearly acceptable to admit to steroid use, drug use, or an overindulgent libido, without evident consequences. These things no longer ring the death knell for an athlete’s career. At worst, a few endorsements may be lost here and there, and the boos and jeers get more creative on the road. We have grown especially comfortable with these confessions in team sports, where an Ochocinco or a Terrell Owens can say or do nearly anything by assuming the role of team jester, provided they continue to perform. But in an individual sport, where the supporting cast is invisible, publicizing foibles, especially after a magnificent career like Agassi’s, comes off as peculiar self-promotion in the absence of recent adulation. Our heroes should not seek praise for their mistakes.
The truth is we do not want our heroes to be human, or at least publicly human. The idea that hard work produces exceptional results is a concept we love in our athletes, who, like it or not, are the predominant heroes in much of our culture. They represent the realization of the untapped potential so many of us weekend hackers and armchair quarterbacks always felt we had, if only our lives had worked out differently. It is refreshing and inspiring to know that someone out there has the discipline and drive we lack. Heroes remind us of what human beings are capable of, so it is a problem when we learn that they have the capacity to be just as wasteful with their time and talent as we are. When an Agassi confesses his flaws, especially when he confesses using drugs during an annus horribilis, it weakens his heroic façade. Suddenly, instead of the hardworking talent, he seems like just a talent. We like much less the notion that it might be native talent, a gift of the gods, allowing people to excel. Hard work and discipline is American; talent is just luck.
Of course, in a culture where overcoming addiction is lauded as a major accomplishment, there will be those who still view someone like Agassi as a hero. That his candidness has garnered praise is not entirely surprising when Alex Rodriguez can both be hated for his admitted steroid use and praised for his play during the same year. But that shadow of steroid use was close on the heels of his first World Series. Not one news report failed to ask the question, “Is A-Rod’s title tainted?” And so we wonder if Agassi was correct, and “Image is everything,” will that image forever be followed by the shadow of drugs? Moreover, once Open falls from the best-seller list, will we still call Agassi a hero?