Professional athletes — along with rock and pop stars, television and movie actors, and billionaires — are our nation’s gods. We worship them. We think they’re made of tougher, smarter, sterner stuff than us, we run of the mill mopes. They have achieved their heights because they are better humans than the rest of us.
We pay them millions of dollars a year, we devour every bit of information imaginable about them, we mourn with them when they lose loved ones, and we celebrate with them when they get married or have children.
Should one such celebrity walk into a store or restaurant we happen to be in at the time, there comes a hush, then a murmur, and finally, a glorious frisson rises in everybody in the place. Even after the celebrity leaves, the room remains alive, electric, buzzing. We have laid eyes upon a descendant from Mount Olympus.
I’m going to concentrate on athletes here today. The point I’ll make can apply equally to actors, pop stars and billionaires. But one of my sports idols died this morning and, as I processed the news, I thought more and more about hero worship.
When I was 14 years old, the Chicago Blackhawks were a powerhouse in the National Hockey League. They were led by left wing Bobby Hull, dubbed the Golden Jet for his shock of wavy blond hair, his dazzling smile, and the excitement he generated whenever he rushed up the ice and took aim with his legendary slapshot.
NHL goaltenders at the time often didn’t wear masks and were known to stand in strong against fusillades of shots. Here’s a photo of the great goaltender Terry Sawchuck, the more severe of his facial gashes and contusions accurately reproduced by a Hollywood makeup artist to illustrate the perils he faced on a nightly basis.
Boston’s Gerry Cheevers was among the first generation of goalies to wear a mask. He drew stitches on it to denote every hit it took from a speeding puck. Here’s a photo of Cheevers and his mask:
The NHL puck was made of hard rubber with semi-sharp edges. Goalies, clearly, were a hard breed. But when Bobby Hull fired a shot, it often travelled at 100-plus miles per hour. I recall seeing a photo of one opposing goaltender actually flinching when Hull let loose a cannon shot against him. NHL goalies normally wouldn’t flinch if someone fired a howitzer at them. I wish I could find the photo now, but I can’t.
In any case, Bobby Hull was the greatest goal scorer in the history of the game at the time. Chicago loved him. He didn’t have to pay for a drink or a meal anywhere in the city.
I loved him, too — as much as I loved Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs.
Then one day I read in the Sun-Times that Bobby Hull’s wife had filed for divorce. Details came out in dribs and drabs. It eventually became clear that Hull hit his wife as easily as he slugged opposing brawlers on the ice. It was the first time I ever heard about a player’s private life. I was stunned.
Bobby Hull can’t have beaten his wife, I thought. He’s a Blackhawk. And I’m a Blackhawk fan.
Remember, I was 14.
At about the same time, certain women close to me suffered spousal abuse. I saw black eyes, puffed out jaws, grotesquely distended lips, all visited upon them by their husbands. My eyes were opened. By and by, I came to accept that men — too many men — hit their loving wives with the same force they’d use to subdue a rampaging drunk. And I came to accept that Bobby Hull, my hero, the greatest goal scorer in the history of the National Hockey League, did so, too.
The Hulls must have reconciled because their divorce wasn’t finalized until 1980. Hull got married again in 1984 and his second wife also accused him of physical abuse. In 1986, the police were called to quell a disturbance between them. She told the cops he’d hit her. As the cops tried to separate Hull from her, he assaulted them as well.
Now that domestic abuse is no longer a secret and the men who pummel their wives have been studied and analyzed from top to bottom, we know that when a woman finally makes the charge of violence against her husband, it’s only after the latest in a long history of such beatings.
Long ago, it became undeniable that Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet, was a miserable human being.
I put up a post on social media earlier today remarking that Bobby Hull, one of my teenaged heroes, had died overnight. Then, throughout the day, the more I thought about him, the more I regretted celebrating his life.
He was a thug. In fact, he was a criminal, even if no court had ever found him guilty of his crimes. That’s another common facet of abusive relationships. Wives, either fearful or overly forgiving, letting their husbands skate.
Years ago, when baseball player Barry Bonds was found to have bulked up using banned and illegal performance enhancing drugs, a guy I knew wondered how he’d explain the situation to his then-young son, who idolized Bonds. “What do I tell my son?” the guy asked.
“If you’re looking to professional athletes to be role models for your kids, if you expect them to be paragons of behavior and character, you’re speeding down a dangerous street,” I said.
In fact, the examples of Bobby Hull and Barry Bonds are perfect teaching moments. Parents should jump at the chance to explain that just because a guy can hit 73 home runs in a year or score 58 goals in a season, that doesn’t mean he is a great human being. He is only a great home run hitter or goal scorer. Period.
They are lessons that drive home the point that athletic prowess and human kindness and decency have no correlation. Sure, a great athlete can be a model citizen. But a police officer can be a goon, a doctor can be a scam artist, a schoolteacher can be a sadist. And the greatest goal scorer in the history of the National Hockey League can be a lout.