How our heroes let us down and why some never deserve to be heroes in the first place

It is perfectly normal while growing up to have some kind of hero or person that you look up to or idolize. Sometimes, this person is a real world influence, such as a parent. More often than not, that someone is a celebrity. More often than that more often than not, that celebrity is an athlete.

Growing up in the 90s allowed for a plethora of choices. I had plenty of friends who worshiped Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Wayne Gretzky, and other larger than life athletes.

My hero was Chris Benoit. Some may scoff at the notion of a professional wrestler being someone that anyone would look up to, but for my ten year old self nobody else symbolized everything I loved about wrestling more than The Crippler.

He was a smaller guy from humble beginnings, told often through his career that the sport was better handled by giants and strongmen. Benoit was different: He made his mark across multiple continents by being as vicious as he was technically savvy. As crisp and fluid in the ring as his own hero, 1980s wrestling legend The Dynamite Kid, Benoit could drag an entertaining match out of just about any performer.

Benoit always had an air of danger and confidence around him, something he earned the hard way. He was blessed with the nickname “The Crippler” for multiple reasons, but mostly for his 1994 ECW match against Sabu, where Benoit broke the man’s neck. His work in the ring looked aggressive because Benoit was aggressive in every way.

I looked up to Benoit because he didn’t allow the preconceived notions about him get in the way of performing to the best of his ability. Growing up as a short kid who was often told that I wouldn’t amount to anything in sports due to my size, that sentiment meant the world to me.

As I grew up, Benoit’s own career flourished, with successful title defenses in WWE and winning pivotal events such as the Royal Rumble and headlining WrestleMania 20. Then, in 2007 and as everyone knows the tale of by now, Benoit murdered his wife and son before hanging himself in his Atlanta home.

I remember that night because it was the day of a PPV event and Benoit was schedule to take on a young CM Punk, who had quickly become another of my favorites for the same reasons that Benoit had won me over so many years before. No surprise, Punk was also an admirer of Benoit’s work and style, greatly anticipating his chance to work for the first time with The Crippler.

The days following the Benoit incident were not pretty. Originally called a home invasion, WWE went for the ratings jugular and the very next night on RAW the company ran a Chris Benoit tribute episode. Teary eyed wrestlers who knew Chris best were dragged in front of the camera to remember their fallen friend. It was a calculated move by WWE, as I’m sure they saw ratings gold, given the success of the Owen Hart tribute show less than a decade before.

It was a mistake to move forward without the facts. While the Chris Benoit tribute show was on the air, news broke in real time that the police were treating the event as a murder-suicide, with Benoit as the suspect. The WWE quickly backpedaled, with Vince McMahon himself issuing a statement the next week that Benoit’s name would be wiped from existence.

Much discussion between fans was on the topic of how Benoit should be remembered. What Benoit had done was horrible and terrifying to even think about, but should that effect what he had accomplished for over 20 years? Should we remember the man or the performer? Do the circumstances of Benoit’s brain trauma and his abuse of steroids provide context to whether or not he should be remembered as a legend in the industry?

Obviously, WWE made their decision on the matter. Benoit has been expunged from “official” WWE records. While his matches remain on DVD and on the WWE Network, the company has gone to great lengths to control where else he appears. One favorite example is a trading card describing the WrestleMania triple threat main event between Triple H, Shawn Michaels, and…someone.

As for my own decision, at first I chose the route of remembering the performer. After all, this man’s body of work had provided me with almost 13 years of material that couldn’t be so easily forgotten. I assumed that, internally, that was all I needed to rationalize the decision.

A few months after those mental gymnastics, I watched a particularly brutal Chris Benoit match, and like taking off a pair of old glasses and placing newer ones on, I couldn’t help but see things differently.

Suddenly, my favorite Benoit spots were painful reminders of the awful truth that professional wrestling–and by extension, sports in general–attempt to camouflage. Every headbutt, chair shot, and crash landing to the canvas by Benoit was another shot of truth that led me to decide that, no, I could not separate the man and the performer.

Almost immediately I ceased watching wrestling. It was too much to sit down and pretend that everything was okay and nothing had changed. I wouldn’t watch wrestling again until 2014, deep into WWE’s new “PG era.”

I’m telling this story because of a discussion I had on Twitter with a peer in regards to Floyd Mayweather. For those unaware, Mayweather is one of the most successful and talented boxers that the sport has ever seen. An unbelievable combination of agility, footwork, and hand speed, Mayweather has overcome the shortfalls of his size and dominated the sport.

However, much like other stars in the sport of boxing before him, Floyd has a dark history outside the ring. Mayweather has multiple incidents of battery and domestic assault. Not only are his crimes numerous, but he is also unrepentant in regards to his complicity in committing said crimes. In a recent piece by the ESPN documentary program “Outside The Lines,” Mayweather was asked about his past and why someone with his violent criminal record should be allowed to be in a ring and make millions of dollars.

His response, given his history, is not shocking. As is Mayweather’s response, in which he claims that his criminal behaviors do not factor because “only God can judge me.”

In this conservation on Twitter, I took offense that, during this week that is the build up for Mayweather’s biggest–and likely most lucrative–fight sees everyone willing to look past the man and be more than willing to view–and give their money to–the performer.

Much like my inability to view Benoit, I draw the same ire to Mayweather. Not everyone saw my viewpoint. One follower remarked that the situation was no different than that of famed musician and abuser of women Ike Turner. This person stated that it is easy to separate the man from the performer.

Of course, the difference here is that Ike Turner’s initial fame outside of his abusive antics were not centered around physical violence in a competitive, contact sport. Hardly the same.

The peer whom I began the conversation with proposed the strawman argument that Benoit and Mayweather’s situations weren’t the same because wrestling is fixed and therefore his body of work doesn’t matter since the results were predetermined. Further more, they argued that I should be happy about Mayweather performing due to it being an opportunity to see Mayweather “get what is coming to him”, which I assumed to mean “you can watch the wife beating millionaire, in return, get the snot punched out of him” which makes it acceptable.

Of course, no matter how badly Floyd is beaten, he will still come out richer than ever, as his fight this weekend with Manny Pacquiao is expected to be one of the richest prize purses in the sport’s history. Perhaps this peer is correct and we are more willing to look past this man’s violence and inability to make peace with his past simply because he will be on the receiving end of physical violence himself.

I don’t view this as acceptable. Truth be told, the only acceptable answer is that Mayweather not be allowed to be in this situation at all. I gain no glee or closure from watching an abuser be abused, nor should anyone else. The real question is whether or not a person can ever atone in the eyes of the public court.

Would I feel the same about Mayweather had he at any point admitted to his wrong doing and attempted to make good? Absolutely. Take the case of Mike Vick as example. What Vick was charged and sent to prison for was abominable. However, he paid his dues with jail time served and a loss of income from his position as star quarterback.

Additionally, Vick went out his way to prove that he could change, throwing his weight behind every volunteer campaign and community event he could find, all in the name of proving a man could atone.

I don’t like Vick, but I respect his attempts at atonement, those of which continue to this day. While Vick’s crimes certainly do not compare to those of Mayweather–and especially not Benoit–I believe there is something to be said for forgiveness in light of trying to correct the errors of the past that one may be responsible for.

Mayweather is not looking to atone and the world isn’t asking him to. Somewhere, someone looks up to this man and aspires to his supposed greatness.

This man does not deserve to be anyone’s hero, and maybe Benoit never deserved to be mine. Yet, he was. And yet, Mayweather surely is someone that somebody looks up to.

In the end, we cannot demand the pleas of mercy from others for their sins. We can only hope that through grace or turn of conscious that said person can attempt to atone before the chance to do so is gone.

Follow Will Harrison on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison or contact him at wharrison@theblade.com. 

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