The letter of the week was written by an eight-year-old girl, Mia, and addressed to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. It was entitled “My Hero”, 11 lines of aspirational prose that should be nailed to every dressing-room door in sport, and more particularly in the week when Luis Suarez made his return for Liverpool, next to the celebrated script at the entry to the players’ tunnel that says “This is Anfield”.
“Dear Hero, I played a game yesterday and tried so hard to win but that did not happen. I got really mad because my team-mates did not play well, but I remembered to encourage each other and never give up. I got hurt and I shook it off. I was so sad that we lost but every game YOU try your hardest and YOU encourage each other, and sometimes YOU win and sometimes lose… I want to be just like YOU when I am older… YOU are my hero. If I could meet anybody it would be YOU. Good luck! Your biggest fan, Mia 8 years!”
You can hear the voice of mum and dad, her words distilling the message of the universal parent, an ideal that is reinforced on the field of play by Peterson. Having met the man, if only fleetingly, before yesterday’s NFL engagement with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Wembley, I can vouch for the aura of integrity. He appears a substantial figure in every respect, a Hall of Famer on the pitch and off it a man who has learned to smile despite a tragic past of lost brothers and a jailed father.
It seems to me that this kind of affirmation, perhaps the purest life has to offer, is not available to Suarez. How might he receive Mia’s supplications? How might he be held as a role model, an example to a child? It would be overstating the case to claim that Peterson’s knees buckled on receipt of the missive presented to him after his final training session on Friday, but there was a quiet recognition of the power of the sentiments expressed. The note got to the heart of it. It told of something fundamental, something of what it is to be good, as opposed to good at something.
Suarez, sadly, is by no means the only athlete to fail to make the distinction. For him and too many others sport is all about the self and the immediacy of now. How we are viewed 10 years from now, 50 years from now, is not considered. But the years will roll by and when his contributions to the game are addressed the goals will not erase the memory of the way he carried himself.
The racist abuse of a fellow player, the craven biting of an opponent, the cynical manipulation of the uneasy political environment at Liverpool that was created by his own hand, and the utter disregard of those who carry his name on the backs of their shirts, who reached out to him unconditionally in his hour of need, these will define his time in England every bit as much as the great moments he conjured on the pitch.
Suarez was made to answer for his abuse of Patrice Evra and for biting Branislav Ivanovic. Fair enough. But not it seems for his appalling treatment of Liverpool FC. Witness the mawkish logorrhoea of arguably the club’s greatest player and former manager Kenny Dalglish in his Mirror column at the weekend: “When he came back into the Liverpool side on Wednesday night, it felt like the Reds had been boosted by a new big-money signing. It was almost as if the transfer window had been extended for them and suddenly they had a new superstar in the team…
“It has been suggested that this must be the last chance for Luis at Liverpool and that if he steps out of line again the club has to get rid of him. I don’t know if it’s his last chance. I don’t know if there is any more trouble coming down the line. But let’s be honest about this – the better the player, the more forgiveness is extended to him. That’s just the reality. The greater the need to have a player in your squad, the more the goalposts move in terms of what you forgive him for.”
And there in the words of an all-time great a summary of the moral state of the game. An acceptance of that is depressingly understood.
We get that there is an economic imperative to all of this and a need to manage the retention or sale of a player according to domestic interest, but surely there is a line crossed in the Suarez case. Keep him if you must but do not frame his return in eulogy.