You might not have noticed. Maybe you are not a fan of American football, or maybe you live somewhere in the world where last Sunday was just a regular Sunday. But here in the United States, last Sunday was Superbowl Sunday - the day of the Big Game in American football. Americans across the continent crowded in front of the television at 6:00 P.M. to witness the match that resulted in the New York Giants' exciting win.
I am definitely not a Giants fan, for a lot of reasons (few of which have to do with football and none of which I am going to elaborate on here). But I am a fan of Superbowl Sunday, because we get to eat all kinds of yummy foods, gathered around the television with our friends, watching the excitement, laughing at the commercials, and marveling at the halftime show.
When they won the championship, the Giants were honored with a ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan. A very large number of fans gathered in the narrow streets of the oldest part of the city, and confetti flew as the Giants were slowly paraded through the streets. They were hailed and celebrated as heroes, just as the Yankees baseball team are when they win the World Series, and just as Charles Lindbergh, Teddy Roosevelt, Pope John Paul II, and the returning Apollo astronauts were before them. (For a complete list of ticker-tape parades in the New York City financial district, see here.)
Over the last few days, one of the news radio stations in New York which has a distinctive political bent started running an item questioning why we throw ticker-tape parades for sports teams but not for returning soldiers. I listen to the radio a lot because I am in the car a lot, shuttling my kids around, and I usually tune out everything but weather and traffic reports. But I thought this particular story raised some interesting issues. The "report," which broadcast repeatedly in the hourly cycle, tapped into a sort of patriotic sentiment that often rears its head in tough economic times. Prominent politicians gave little sound bites in which they tried to balance we-are-Giants-fans-and-don't-mean-to-belittle-their-achievement with we-love-and-support-our-soldiers-and-need-to-honor-them-more.
Yesterday, the "story" had morphed into a report that a commemorative Giants license plate would be issued for New York motor vehicles. The question, posed by an upstate Congressman, became: why don't we have commemorative license plates honoring the heroes of September 11?
And I, behind my seat belt, started thinking about the nature of heroes and our culture's obsession with them.
We overuse the word "hero" a lot. It is used to describe not only victorious sports teams, but also victims of crimes who resist their attackers, people who recover from difficult injuries, parents who fight on behalf of their children, and people who perform daring rescues. In my opinion, some of these people are actually heroes, but many of them are just excellent role models. I think those who risked or lost their own lives to save others on September 11 are probably properly termed heroes. The Yankees and the Giants, though, are the products of a huge commercial sports machine. Their elaborately-staged matches take place in luxurious stadiums where a beer can cost a spectator $11. The best players among them earn many, many times more money in their short careers than a fireman, EMT, or rescue team will make in a lifetime.
Is the Pope a hero? Are returning astronauts heroes? How about Charles Lindbergh? I think these are probably people who, for their fan base, are better termed role models. They stand for belief systems and achievements that appeal to many people. I'm not Catholic, so I'll leave the Pope out of this. I will acknowledge, however, that the achievements of the astronauts and the pilot were truly remarkable in their time. Nevertheless, I'd be less likely to call them heroes than I would a fireman who rushes out of a burning building with an infant in his arms.
I think we should use the term "hero" more sparingly and the term "role model" more generously. There are great role models everywhere we turn: the teacher who teaches the disabled child to read, the crime or accident victim who struggles and makes a stunning recovery, the religious or political leader who practices what she preaches, even the occasional athlete. But a hero is something rare and special. Let's spare that particular word when referring to people who overcharge us for drinks and entertainment and save it for times when it really matters.