Err McNair?

In a quasi-obituary of the late Steve McNair, ESPN’s Jemele Hill  argued that we should remember the highlights of the former superstar in the wake of his tragic death – and not get caught up in the apparently adulterous circumstances surrounding his demise.

I should admit two things upfront:  I tend to abhor Jemele Hill’s columns (although I saw her doing a segment as a talking head on ESPN’s First Take morning show, and thought she was much better on TV).  That’s just my personal opinion on her writing style, although I usually disagree with her points as well. I was also a big fan of Steve McNair as a football player; as has been rehashed over and over in the days since his death, he seemed to play through more injuries than anyone else and, more than any other player, carried his team when his team needed carrying.

In reading this piece, though, I found myself agreeing with Hill – something that only happens once or twice a year, at most.  It made sense to remember NcNair for his accomplishments and not his detriments.  But one paragraph made me do a complete 180:

But my lasting images of McNair will be of him as a football gladiator, clutch performer and, overall, a decent man. Those images won’t be replaced by the TMZ photos of him on vacation with Sahel Kazemi, the young woman who died along with him. I’ll leave the judging to a higher authority.

Indeed, the facts surrounding McNair’s not out. But there’s something about athletes, entertainers, and sometimes politicians that allow us to gloss over their flaws to remember the great things they did on the field, on the stage, or in the halls of power.

In discussing him as a role model, McNair’s flaws do matter – not in the consideration of his football career, but in consideration of him as a person.  We know about McNair the Hall of Fame football player, but we should remind ourselves that we don’t know much beyond that – and because we don’t know, we can’t hail McNair as a model citizen in anything beyond the white lines.  As in any endeavor, success on the field means little if one cannot honor his own family.  Mark Sanford is a similar cautionary tale in the field of politics; the mysterious Michael Jackson comes to mind in entertainment.

Time may or may not reveal all the details surrounding McNair’s life and death.  As Hill reminds us, we can hail his on-field achievements whether those facts come to light or not; there are no doubts about those.  But neither McNair nor any athlete – nor, for that matter, any public figure – should be assumed to be great simply for what they do on the professional field.

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