I watched the new Superman movie with my wife a couple of weeks ago at our local discount theatre. I am a more of an Iron Man guy myself, but thought it would be a fun movie to see on the big screen. Unfortunately, the movie lost my interest pretty quickly after it became obvious that both Superman and the arch-villain were invincible. Bullets, missiles, fires, lasers, falling debri, and, literally everything else that someone could concoct to kill a man was rendered useless. Their “Superness” was on another level and the laws that limited the rest of humanity did not apply. Neither hero or villain had any concern or fear of danger because their strength and superhuman abilities could always overcome…even death apparently. This dynamic made for a pretty boring story for all us normal humans sitting in the audience. Without the danger of death, a reality that is common to every normal person, the beauty and triumph of the story was lost on us. We couldn’t relate. At best we could only wish that we were “Super” too, living in a reality where the laws of this world didn’t apply.
When it comes to most elite athletes there is a something of this “superhumanness” that is the lifeblood of each athlete’s identity. No obstacle is too big, no problem is too difficult, no injury too severe. What limits and humbles the rest of the human race doesn’t apply to these elite men and women, a belief that most take deep pride in. Interestingly enough, there has been some research done on the characteristics of an athletes personality and one of the markers that distinguishes athletes from non-athletes is an increase in resilience. An athlete can often mentally and physically overcome quit a deal more in comparison to most non-athletes. I would hypothesize that this is a trait that is born out of the physical and mental conditioning that comes with the territory of elite competition. An athlete must learn to overcome obstacles, limitations, and even abuse(s) if they intend on reaching an elite level. If they don’t, they will eventually fall by the wayside because in the current world of sports the aforementioned realities are just the name of the game. Somewhere in this process athletes must block out any reservation or worry and begin to believe that they can and will be able to rise above the rest. At some point the mantra, “do whatever it takes” becomes a mandate to continue pushing.
I’ve been reading a memoir by Tim Green, a former NFL lineman that has been especially intriguing as to the natural consequences of this mentality in the world of sports. He actually believes that the pursuit of this image, for an athlete eventually encourages steroid use, drug abuse, and a dismissal of health risks in order to delay decline and limitation. In one chapter he talks about how the act of “taking the needle” (a medical treatment that allows athletes to disregard immense pain and further injury in order to keep playing) is considered a mark of honor and admiration in the NFL. He says, “[taking the needle] demonstrates the complete disregard for one’s well being that is admired in the NFL (Green, p. 125).” On the one hand it has been this superhuman belief that has allowed mere mortals to get to the pinnacle of athletics, but simultaneously it is this same belief that leads athletes to abuse themselves as they try to delay what is inevitable. Green points out that without this invincible belief one could never face the dark realities of football. He also points out that by the time a player has to look their humanity in the face they are so attached to this superhuman identity that they would often rather die than accept their own defeat.
To be sure, there has, and will never be, an athlete that can defeat the shriveling effects of death. But the call of fame and fortune, or maybe more deeply the desire to hold onto one’s identity, for an athlete can cause even the most sane man to make a deal with the devil. This plays out in the most simple of ways. A fringe linebacker smacks his head against another helmet jarring his brain to a swell and causing what is called a concussion. Although having a wealth of information and new rules on his side protecting him from endangering himself and his swelling brain, the athlete lies to team doctors about his condition for fear of being given a moniker of “injury prone” or “damaged goods”. He runs back out on the field…because he is invincible. He won’t be stopped by a traumatic brain injury. After all, when one is pumped full of all kinds of different numbing agents and armed with a Superhero Costume of sorts it becomes quite easy to believe in invincibility. Unfortunately there is always a price to pay when trying to play God. Our mortality will not be disregarded regardless of what we believe in our mind. One way or another we are all humbled and reminded of our limitations. But this hard reality won’t stop the next person from trying. Every time a superhero costume is retired there is always another hungry soul to pick it up. We all want to be Superman.