There’s a reason saints aren’t canonized until long after they’ve died.
The swift downfall of Hugh Freeze is yet another reminder that sports figures are as flawed as everyone else, sometimes even more so. They’re just able to hide it better, provided cover by the blind adoration of their fans.
When Freeze was forced out by Ole Miss last week after his phone records showed a one-minute call to a number tied to an escort service, there were plenty of fans who simply refused to believe it. Such a godly man could never do such a thing!
Never mind that Ole Miss said it wasn’t the one phone call but the discovery of “a pattern of personal misconduct” that brought about Freeze’s resignation. Wrongdoing, rule-breaking and the like are graded on a sliding scale, particularly for college sports figures, the gravity of the sins commensurate with geographic proximity or emotional attachment.
Offenses by a random coach or athlete across the country will generate a shrug, maybe a shake of the head. Those committed by a middling conference member are deemed appalling and worthy of swift punishment. The outrage skyrockets when it’s a bitter rival, with every error in judgment seen as a capital offense that was meticulously planned with the full knowledge and support of everyone at the university or organization.
And if it happens to be your coach or favorite player caught up in something shady? Another example of “fake news” or the spiteful work of a vengeful rival.
Coaches and athletes who get busted for bad behavior aren’t necessarily bad people. Some are, with Dave Bliss immediately coming to mind. But the vast majority are just like the rest of us, their best intentions and basic decency undercut by greed, pride, lust or self-preservation.
You can quote Scripture in public and sin in private, as Freeze seems to have done.
“God is good, even in difficult times,” Freeze told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday in his first public comments since his resignation July 20. “Wonderful wife and family, and that’s my priority.”
You can be instrumental in the formation of hundreds of fine, upstanding young men and exhibit callous disregard for the health and safety of others. You can bring a title to your city or school one year and shame the next.
But society has never quite learned how to accept the ordinary in our sports idols. Too often we look at their exceptional athletic skills and think that means they’re exceptional people, too. We wear their jerseys, give our kids their names and entrust them with our favorite memories – all without ever knowing who they really are.
And when they show us, more often than not we don’t want to see it.
Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor raced each other to the bottom of the gutter with their homophobic and racist slurs and it hasn’t diminished interest in their fight. More than five years later, there’s still a faction of Penn State alumni and fans who will angrily refute any suggestion of Joe Paterno’s culpability in Jerry Sandusky’s monstrous crimes.
The Freeze mess is only going to get uglier – universities don’t “encourage” popular, winning coaches to resign unless there’s a darn good reason – and yet no doubt some will stand by him because they know he’s a “good man,” his Bible verses and two victories over Alabama all the proof they need.
The truth is, they don’t know about Freeze. Or anyone else for that matter. We see what we want in our sports heroes without actually looking at what’s there.
That’s the danger in elevating a human to a saint. Put them up too high, and eventually they fall.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.