Idle Worship

by Dave Zirin / @edgeofsports

The horror show scandal that swallowed the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s legacy should have taught us, if nothing else, a very simple lesson: Universities really shouldn’t be in the business of building statues to athletic icons. This is especially true when it comes to honoring someone in the morally conflicted, deeply corrupt and highly combustible multi-billion dollar world of college athletics.

I write this because the new college basketball season is opening with news of two new statues, just several hundred miles apart, that will commemorate two living basketball legends. In East Lansing, MI, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Michigan State’s most famous alumnus and the Most Outstanding Player of the 1979 Final Four, will be set in stone with a 12-foot monument to his undeniable greatness. In Terre Haute, IN, on the campus of the Indiana State Sycamores, Larry Joe Bird will be immortalized in a statue set to be 15 feet tall. Why 15? Because the sculptor believes that Bird is “better than Magic.” This is all very cute, and Magic and Bird have certainly made a nice little cottage industry out of their rivalry—even co-signing a Broadway play that, like a Magic no-look pass, went unseen.

But honoring these all-time athletes on a college campus is, as it was with Paterno, an absolutely awful idea. I am not for a moment suggesting that any Sandusky-sized scandals are lingering in Magic’s and Larry’s closets. Magic seems content as a figurehead owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and buying up the rest of Harlem. Larry just retired from running the Indiana Pacers and seems ready to kick back into retirement. This isn’t about them but about the message it sends to the regular students as well as the student athletes at each school.

This should be the takeaway lesson from what happened at Penn State: Sports cannot be the financial, social or even emotional center of a university. Similarly, a Division I college basketball program cannot be a minor league for the NBA where students are scenery to the action on the court and just happen to go to class in between games.

Idolizing Magic and Bird at an institution of higher learning sends exactly the opposite message. Magic was at East Lansing for two years. Bird by all accounts went to class only if he took a wrong turn on the way to the gym. No one should begrudge them their lack of academic rigor. Both were obvious galactic talents who did exactly what they should have done: use their school as a stepping-stone to the pros. But they are also once-in-a-generation talents. One of the main problems with our jock culture is that we sell the idea that anyone can be Magic or Larry if they just have the will, desire or as Bird called his memoir, Drive to do it. But hoop is cruel, perhaps the cruelest of all major sports. A person might be able to will himself to hit a curve ball or memorize every blitz package on earth. But no one can will himself or herself to being 6-9 with a court vision that would humble Bob Cousy. Asking students to aspire to be Magic and Bird is almost like asking them to aspire to be Superman, when no one but Clark Kent was born on Krypton. Students deserve better. The players deserve better. The warped moral center of the NCAA, in such desperate need of reformation, deserves better.

If people really think there should be statues of Magic and Bird, put Magic right next to his old running buddy Kareem right in front of the Staples Center. Place Bird alongside the only Celtic with a loftier legacy, the great Bill Russell. But please get them off their campuses. There’s a good record in recent—as well as ancient—history that false idols never end well.