The ancient Greeks told tales about these giant beings they called Titans. The Titans once fought with the Greek gods. At stake was world supremacy. The Titans lost. So, the gods punished the Titans.
There was one Titan named Atlas. When punishments were doled out Atlas was sentenced to hold up the sky.
And he did. Atlas held the sky on his shoulders for many years.
One day Hercules, the son of Zeus wandered by Atlas. Hercules was looking for some golden apples. Atlas knew where they grew.
Atlas told Hercules, "I'll get the apples if you hold up the sky while I’m gone."
So Hercules did.
When Atlas returned he watched Hercules struggle. The weight of the sky make Hercules sweat and groan. "Who would want to take back a job like that?" thought Atlas to himself. "I could leave Hercules here and walk away. Then I would be free forever."
Hercules sensed what Atlas had in mind. So Hercules thought of a trick.
"This sky is so uncomfortable!" said Hercules. "Hold it up for a minute while I get a pad for my shoulders. Then I'll hold it up again."
So Atlas took the sky from Hercules.
But the minute Hercules was free, he ran away, never to return. So, Atlas had no choice but to hold up the sky forever.
I'm not entirely sure why. But Atlas is dying. Perhaps the myth -- Greek, Roman, homespun, or otherwise -- has no place in modern lore. Perhaps our insatiable lust for "reality" has so usurped our collective spirit so that there is no use for the imagination. We seem to have no need for inspiration.
Problem is we're not actually seeking reality. We're seeking "parity." We want our mythical hero to be just like us. By magnifying his flaws and diminishing his accomplishments, we seek to make him human. But not in a comforting way. We want him cut low so that we may feel, in some way superior to him.
Perhaps it's always been this way. But for me there was a specific day on which I felt killing Atlas became a priority. I'm sure you remember that day. It was Sept. 28, 2003. On that day, Rush Limbaugh asserted McNabb just wasn't that good and the "liberal media" wanted to see a black quarterback succeed."
There were many days of righteous indignation, of course. Limbaugh was fired. But something happened after that. Within a year of Limbaugh's statement the collective sports media, in a concerted effort to prove its "objectivity," became fully committed to disparaging athletes. Whether it was through the investigative story or the op-ed page, the prevalent tone of sports media became nasty and vengeful.
At one time the pendulum swung toward a "Don't ask, don't tell" imperative, especially in regards to the private lives of athletes. But that day is gone. If an athlete is suspected of an unsavory action, either on or off the field of play, his feet will be held to the fire until every aspect of his legend has been burned beyond recognition.
Of the many incarnations of Atlas, the running back who came of age in Columbia, Miss., is among the most endearing. That's because he ran up a hill. This made his legs strong and his heart sound. Sure, he lifted weights and engaged in all the technologically advanced pursuits befitting a modern athlete. But what he did on that hill got to us.
There were other lasting impressions too. We remember the cheeky conversation he had with President Reagan after he set the all-time rushing record. We remember how he punished tacklers. We remember how he recklessly catapulted himself into the end zone. We remember that time he broke into the Oakland Raiders secondary where he met Jack Tatum: The game's most powerful runner entangled with the game’s most unforgiving hitter offered us a glimpse of how it may have looked when the Greeks and Titans got down.
By the time his team finally won a Super Bowl, the legend of Walter Payton was far greater than any ring he would wear.
But now we're supposed to make room for new memories. "Revelations," they're called, in the new biography that chronicles Payton's life. Sure, I have room for memories of painkillers. That's par for the course. There is no moral disillusionment associated with drugs like Vicodin, nitrous oxide or any agent used to numb debilitating pain. Not for me. And probably not for you either. Football is hazardous to your health. Always has been, always will be. Those who play ball will, in varying ways and degrees, be worse off for it.
Yes, I have room for memories of depression, even thoughts of suicide. Not even the most fleet footed of us can elude the profound complexity of the human experience.
But I have no room for the gratuitous disclosure of marital infidelity. Investigative journalism has a purpose in a civilized world. There’s reason to expose the likes of Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Bernie Madoff. Their actions produced victims.
There is no good reason to expose the Payton household. To do so would publicly victimize Payton's wife Connie, and his children Jarrett, and Brittney. They've already suffered.
Besides, we already have all the information we need on the Payton family. The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation tends to the needs of neglected, abused, and underprivileged children. Its goal is to "encourage a better family unit." Enough said.
Pearlman says its "kills" him to do this to Payton's children. At first I didn't I believe him. But now I do. There's always that sting of guilt when you willingly do something you know is completely unnecessary.
Pearlman is a fine writer. I used to read him when he wrote for ESPN's Page Two. He went after Barry Bonds back when everyone was going after Bonds. He called Bonds "evil." Interesting choice of words. Arrogant, rude and evasive would surely suffice for someone who was all of those things. In the business of mythology, I suppose some hyperbole is in order, but descriptors like "evil" are best left for the Osama Bin Ladens of the world.
But this isn't about Jeff Pearlman. It's about us too. What "kills" him is killing all of us. We don't need to prove athletes mortal. They do that by themselves. The legend of Tiger Woods? Dead by his own hand.
What's accomplished by destroying the myth? Is the miserable life made less miserable? Perhaps for a moment. But the misery returns once it's discovered that someone else is thriving.
And once all the myths are laid to waste then what?
I don't know.
All I know is that the sky is falling.
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