Monday, January 04, 2016
Quick! Name the soccer player with the greatest number of international goals. Hint: this forward has appeared in four World Cups and three Olympics. Give up or did you know? It’s Abby Wambach, who retired from the game on Dec. 16, 2015 with 184 goals scored in international play. And yes, that is more than any other player male or female in soccer history. That means more goals than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham or Mia Hamm who amazingly ranks second in the world with 154 goals. Abby’s impact on the sport transcends gender distinctions and national allegiance. She definitely elevated the game here in the United States, but she has also joined the international pantheon of notable players with name recognition around the world.
Abby began playing soccer when she was six and made the U.S. National team in her teens. She played college ball at the University of Florida where she honed her signature diving header. Her headers determined games with last minute clutch plays, most notably in the 2011 World Cup when her header at the 122nd minute tied Brazil in the semi-finals, leading to the U.S.’s ultimate victory to make it to the finals. Her head was marked by both her own team, as the point to hit in hopes of a goal, and by the opponent as the dangerous weapon which had to be stopped. Yet teams often couldn’t thwart the power she possessed with both her head and her feet, and more significantly the power she possessed to inspire her team. The New York Times declared she was “the soul” of the Women’s National Team, and there was little argument with the truth of that statement. She motivated teammates to persevere through tough matches and helped them remained focused leading to strong performances and significant come-from-behind victories. While her skill as a player is unquestioned, it is her character which sets her even further apart from other sports marvels. She possesses integrity, determination, humility and joy, traits we hope all our youth players aspire to and achieve. She embodies the true character of a role model. Abby was a refreshing stand-out who could inspire both girls and boys; someone we could trust to provide drama-free behaviors. When Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the Women’s National Team, was arrested for domestic abuse just prior to the 2015 World Cup, Abby kept her opinions to herself, focused on the competition ahead and supported her teammate. That’s a class act. As she shifts to a new role as commentator, soccer representative and endorser, she will continue to bring to soccer the same high level of investment and scrupulousness. Pointing our kids in her direction wouldn’t be a mistake.
However in this climate of larger-than-life sports celebrities who all too often seem more self-involved than humble in the face of their success, it’s difficult to find people we want our children to look up to. We may chuckle at some of the antics, but the behaviors of these notables aren’t anything we want our children to model. Abby’s time of playing has ended, and new players will take her place as time moves forward. Just as Mia Hamm and Cobi Jones gave way to Abby Wambach and Landon Donovan, they have now given way to Alex Morgan and Michael Bradley. Unfortunately we parents don’t get to pick the sports icons our children adore. That comes from a mix of public opinion and personal attachment. We may be able to steer our kids gently in a certain direction, but ultimately they want the jersey that everyone else is wearing. Alas those who imbue a jersey number with legendary magic can’t all have the dependability that we witnessed with Abby. Too regularly our heroes end up letting us down. So that begs the question, what do we do when our child’s idol has clay feet?
In 2013 we had a summer of huge disappointment when Brewer’s outfielder Ryan Braun denied he used performance enhancing drugs, had a suspension overturned and then in a disastrous turn of events had to reluctantly fess up. Caught up in the same scandal was Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees who dug in his heels in the face of overwhelming evidence and refused to admit to any wrong doing, though the evidence (and the baseball commissioner) said otherwise. Thousands of kids were sent into a tailspin as they struggled with the aftermath of fallen idols. These kids had jerseys, posters, signed baseballs and other memorabilia, all of which lost their luster quickly. Some continued to support their heroes, but most were too scared and ashamed to admit their allegiances. It was confusing to hear newscasters and sports reporters tear down their icons daily. Parents were also conflicted because they understood the seriousness of the charges but also felt loyalty to their team. Imagine how much more upsetting this was to young players who didn’t comprehend the issues except on the most rudimentary level. All they really understood was that their star was tarnished and by association so were they.
These doping suspensions weren’t the first implosion of a sports star’s image (think Tiger Woods, Tonya Harding, Lance Armstrong), but is regrettably emblematic of how many players end up on the wrong end of the law, lying or flaunting poor social decorum. We parents have the unenviable task of helping our kids deal with the news. We need to help kids separate the legend from the reality. It’s important for them to understand that just because someone can score goals from 30 yards out doesn’t mean he’s a pillar of integrity. Kids can still be enamored with a player’s skills while taking exception to her conduct. We parents should point out that all the adulation can warp a person’s sense of humility and entitlement. Whatever the circumstances of a professional player’s fall from grace, kids should be able to learn some valuable lessons about making ethical choices, being honest and taking responsibility for behaviors. We should openly discuss the reports and kids should be encouraged to come up with how their hero might have better handled the situation. We can ask “What would you do if someone offered you a way to cheat?” or “Is there a time when lying is okay?” or “Does someone famous have the right to ignore the rules?” While these seem to be rhetorical questions, we may be surprised at how our kids view the issues. Rather than judge the responses, we should encourage a dialog, focusing on all the issues involved, and continuing the discussion as it impacts their lives. We should do this is so that our kids learn to analyze moral dilemmas and arrive at solutions that will make both us and them comfortable. It’s not about one right answer but about developing the tools to find their own answers while in the midst of an ethical quagmire. It won’t be just about sports, but really all about life.
Abby’s retirement marks the end of an era with the Women’s National Team that set amazing standards for quality of action both on and off the pitch. When we find a player that we believe embodies a strong work ethic and moral compass, we shouldn’t be shy about pointing that out to our youngsters. The player may not be the biggest star, but at least he or she can serve as an example of what we want our children to aspire to. It’s all right if our kids hitch their loyalties to someone we consider possesses questionable principles because should he or she falter, their fall will provide valuable life lessons. More importantly, there will always be an Abby Wambach out there to whom we can direct their attention. Sports heroes despite some extraordinary skills are also human beings with frailties, but some, like Abby, have fewer than others. An era of decency will continue long after good players retire. Someone will take their place. It will be exciting to see who steps up in women’s soccer.