Leading Article: Plenty of pedestals but few sporting heroes

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The Independent Online
WHERE ARE our heroes now? The national disillusion about English football and cricket goes beyond disappointment at humiliating defeat. The heart of the matter is the failure of England's sporting stars to inspire, either by their talent or their behaviour. The picture of the cricket team, England's Tetley Bittermen, slumped in chairs during the award ceremony after defeat by India in the final Test aptly portrayed their inadequacies. In the meantime, Paul Gascoigne upholds the Charlie George tradition of yob as football hero. Britain's golfers are boring, its snooker players well-dressed automata. Surely spectators are entitled to more for their time and money?

Frank Bruno stands out as an exception. A teenage tearaway, as he described himself this week on Desert Island Discs, he has made his name in a most barbaric sport. Yet he has managed to present himself as big, cuddly Frank, accessible to the public, and frequently very funny. Bruno is a latter-day Henry Cooper, the model sportsman. There are a few others: David Gower, Will Carling and Linford Christie, David Platt and Gary Lineker. But they hardly sparkle.

The sports themselves seem sullied by money. The tacky exchanges this week in court between Alan Sugar and Terry Venables have further lowered the image of a game sorely in need of elevation. And there have been other bitter blows: for example, the sale to satellite television of rights to screen Premier League matches live. This deprived many people of the chance to see the best of England's national sport. Ironically, they have discovered instead the joys of Italian football on Channel 4. As viewers see that country's beautiful stadiums and marvellous footballers, they realise how they have been short-changed.

The United States has always demanded that sport be inspirational. The singing of 'Take me out to the ball-game' at the seventh-inning stretch is a mark of how US sport is entertainment for all the family. It may be corny to British ears, but it makes a change from Millwall's famous refrain, 'Nobody likes us, we don't care'. Sporting heroes in the US must live up to their position. In the Forties everybody wanted to be Joe DiMaggio, the great baseball player. He would visit hospitals and tell children: 'I'll hit a home run for you.' And he did. Magic Johnson - 'Tragic Magic' - has become a spokesman for people with Aids.

But the old days, when the flaws of sporting heroes were kept hidden by the press, are over. Babe Ruth, America's most famous baseball star, could not expect his drink problem to be covered up today as it was in the Forties. Michael Jordan, who plays basketball for the Chicago Bulls, proclaims in an advertisement, simply: 'Be like Mike.' The popular outrage that has accompanied revelations of his penchant for gambling shows that US sporting stars have to be true to their image. If they want the kudos and cash that comes with their status as role models, they must live up to the expectations they themselves have generated.

As in Britain, excessive competitiveness and telephone-number earnings - Don Revie's legacy to football - brings the danger of corruption to sport. Americans are shocked at the fashion for 'trash-talking'. This is where a player, briefed by a coach, will antagonise an opponent, maligning his family, until the opponent strikes out and is sent off the field. The retirement this week of Dale Murphy, the Bobby Charlton of American baseball, prompted a leading article in the Washington Post bemoaning deterioration in standards of behaviour.

It is time in Britain for people who care for the future of sport to be just as severe on its ugly side. Gascoigne is paraded as a hero in the British tabloids, but when he belched on Italian television questions were asked in the Italian parliament. Sports stars are immensely privileged. It is reasonable, in exchange for granting this status, that society should ask them to be proper role models. The advertising industry can help, but the main pressure and encouragement must come from regulatory bodies such as the Football Association. It might then be easier in a few years' time to find suitable sporting recipients of the Queen's Birthday Honours.