John F. Russell: Professional athletes build, grapple with the images they create

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John Russell

John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by John here.

— Image is everything.

We just have to look at the stories of professional athletes like Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong to get a taste of how important an athlete’s image can be. Watch long enough, and you'll see just how quickly that image can disappear.

I prefer to look to athletes like Champ Bailey, Tim Tebow and Todd Helton. These are the athletes we all cheer for, but they rarely are the ones we remember. These athletes have spent years building an image that fits their personalities, and I admire the way they protect their images in public and private.

They understand that image has brought them a healthy paycheck and support from fans and teammates. They understand that image is more important than any touchdown they score, more important than any home run they hit and more fragile than the weakest bone in their bodies.

Tiger Woods discovered that a few years ago when his personal life spilled into sensational newspaper headlines. His life off the course was a hot topic among sports columnists and was mentioned on the evening news. To this day, he continues to battle the negative image he created despite the fact that the dark cloud hanging over his head has nothing to do with his ability to play the game of golf.

Barry Bonds may have set the single-season home run record with 73 in 2001, but these days, he is on the short list of some of the most disliked players in the game.

Most baseball fans understand that steroids, human growth hormones and performance-enhancing drugs are part of the game. The fans may not like it, but most of them are willing to look the other way — especially if there is a chance that one of their favorite players might be using.

But for some reason, Bonds has become the poster child for those who think performance-enhancing drugs are ruining the game of baseball. It might be his personality, but it’s clear that Bonds' reputation, and his image, forever have been damaged by what he claims never to have done.

Like Bonds, Armstrong was a huge star in his sport. During his career, he raced to seven Tour de France titles. Those titles have been stripped along with his image.

In his prime, you could argue that Armstrong was the most recognized athlete in the sport of professional cycling. His success fueled an interest in the sport in the United States that likely never will be seen again.

But that success came with a price, and when it came out a few months ago that Armstrong was cheating, his image and the sport of cycling in the United States took a huge hit.

Because of this, Armstrong forever will be viewed as a cheater, not a champion. His defense is that drugs are so widespread in the sport of cycling that he could not be competitive without them. He could be telling the truth, but his approach to the problem was ill conceived.

He will spend his life trying to ride away from the image he has created, but his legs simply cannot move fast enough to escape. You could say the same thing about Woods and Bonds.

These athletes have learned the hard way that sports are not about winning the game, not about the money you take home and, at the end of the day, not about the fame. The most important thing about being a professional athlete is creating an image that you can live with after the game comes to an end.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com

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