This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Why does it surprise us, sadden us so, when a Doc Gooden or a Darryl Strawberry can't lick their addiction problems? Maybe in bygone eras, when Babe Ruth's and then Mickey Mantle's hard-core drinking were hidden by the press, we the fans were much more Pollyanna about our athlete icons. They were America--mom, milk and apple pie. They were depicted as ideal citizens, the kind of guys you want for a brother or a father or a senator. Then our population at large grew out of those Pollyanna decades. Tell-it-like-it-is, nitty-gritty realism swept in and we came to know all about Lawrence Taylor's cocaine habit and Pete Rose's gambling habit and Jose Canseco's steroid habit.
But, even though a terrier-like press corps now digs up every tawdry detail of a celebrity's daily behavior, when it comes to our champion athletes, we still seem to be shocked if they wind up less than squeaky clean. Why don't we figure they're only human, they have trouble coping, just like the rest of us?
Even in this day and age of ultimate exposure and disclosure, we still hoist our athletes up onto some mythical pedestal and hold them up to our kids as symbols of our most cherished values: work ethic, fulfilled potential, and grace under pressure. When they stumble, we are crestfallen.
It shouldn't surprise us to learn that John Daly, the "everyman;" of the pro golf tour, with his beer gut, a cigarette hanging from his lips between shots, and a constant string obscenities tumbling out beneath that cigarette, has a debilitating gambling problem. We've known about his bouts with alcoholism, his stints in rehab joints. We know his fourth wife is finishing up a prison sentence on charges involving illegal gambling and a drug ring. We know all these various and sundry dark spots in the Daly biography, as well as we know what a thrill he can deliver when he clobbers those tee shots. And yet we're going to read in his new book, to be released this Monday, that he has run his gambling debts to the moon. In the neighborhood of $50 to $60 million. He tells stories such as winning $750,000 at last year's World Golf Championships and then before the proverbial ink on his scorecard had dried, he high-tailed it to Vegas and in about the time it takes him to play 18 holes--five hours--he lost $1.65 million. The PGA Tour, supporting one of their most popular players, offers to help Daly with his drinking, his marriage woes and his gambling addiction. They offer to provide counseling. Yet John Daly's view on counseling is that, quote, "I;'m not really into that."
Rich, talented individuals in business and the arts and the sciences and all walks of life suffer from addiction but with an athlete, there's this sense that wasting that natural, unique talent is a crime. We have some collective notion that if we ever had the chance to make a more than handsome living hitting a golf ball or running a football, we would surely have common sense enough not to screw up an opportunity to live such a good life.
Ricky Williams, one of the great football talents of our time, has for the fourth time violated the NFL's substance abuse policy and has hence been suspended for the entire upcoming season. Williams already owes the Miami Dolphins $8.6 million for walking out on them right before the 2004 season and now he won't play until 2007 when he'll be 30. A former Heisman Trophy winner, a special back for whom the New Orleans Saints and later the Dolphins just about mortgaged their entire franchise value to acquire him, will perhaps never play football again.
Williams and Daly, Gooden and Strawberry, Ruth and Mantle, none of them are perfect.
Yet even in this cynical time of examining every celebrity freckle under a microscope, we prefer to operate under the delusion that our athletes are still all mom, milk and apple pie. When it comes to our jock culture, we're still as Pollyanna as we were yesteryear.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.