Thursday, July 9, 2009

The McNair Legacy Hubbub: Does It Have to Be Black-and-White?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 9, 2009 at 8:33 AM

click to enlarge Is this the Steve McNair you'll remember?
  • Is this the Steve McNair you'll remember?
Now that Steve McNair's and Sahel Kazemi's deaths have been ruled a murder-suicide, media coverage is turning to McNair's legacy. Will he be remembered as a great football player who soldiered on through injuries and helmed the most exciting season in Titans history? Or as a thoughtless philanderer who took advantage of an impressionable young woman? I just read one such story, Elizabeth Merrill's The dilemma: How to mourn McNair, on ESPN.com. Merrill examines the conflicted feelings of fans around the country, particularly in Nashville. She writes:
"It's a moral dilemma in Nashville, a town that worships its sports heroes and believed, for the better part of 10 years, that Steve McNair was its most perfect role model: How do you mourn a man whose imperfections were exposed in his shocking death?"
It reminded me of a conversation I had Monday night. A friend of mine expressed disgust that McNair was being deified. The adultery was bad enough, he felt, but with a 20-year-old woman? I asked if it would have been less irksome to him if it had been a 35-year-old woman. He seemed to indicate that yes, it might have been less unseemly. Which got me thinking about a lot of things. Does the age matter at all? She wasn't a minor, and McNair himself was 36. It's not exactly an age difference that turns heads. And if there had been no murder, but it had been revealed that McNair had an affair, would that have been equally scandalous? And do the circumstances of his death automatically tarnish his significant accomplishments on and off the field? Journalists love a black-and-white angle--and "will he be remembered as an adulterer or an NFL star?" provides a jumping-off point. Ultimately, though, don't most people have a nuanced enough comprehension of life's trials and temptations to see him for what he was: A great football player and community leader who made some bad decisions? What about Jim Brown? Brown was arrested multiple times for assault and domestic abuse, including throwing his girlfriend off a balcony. (The woman refused to name Brown as her assailant, and the charge of assault with intent to murder was dropped.) In 1999, Brown was convicted of smashing the window of his 25-year-old wife Monique's car, though he was acquitted of making terrorist threats against her. Brown was 63 at the time. Was the age of his wife a topic of controversy? Isn't violence against women a far more unforgivable transgression than cheating on your wife? Whether you answer yes or no, Brown is mostly hailed as the greatest running back of all time, and his misdeeds are typically but a footnote in his story. Of course, Jim Brown is still alive, and his misdeeds won't be forever entangled with an untimely demise. And his status as an NFL superstar is far less debatable. And look at Michael Jackson. Watching yesterday's TV coverage, you'd think the pope had died, with nary a mention of the scandals and allegations of inappropriate behavior that hounded him for years. Did Bill Clinton's antics make him a pariah? Well, maybe to some who leaned to the right politically, but he's still a beloved political figure to millions of Americans. Of course, he didn't die before he had a chance to apologize. To me, Steve McNair's legacy is simple. He wasn't a saint. He wasn't a slimeball. He had a successful career and was a charitable community member, a humble guy and an adulterer, like a lot of other star athletes and celebrities. That his girlfriend decided to kill him doesn't change any of that.

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