The general stood on the battlefield before his army. He was draped in lion skin with a club in hand. Under a beaming sun touched by the shadows of his 100 thousand men, enemy troops could be forgiven for mistaking him as Hercules incarnate. His men outnumbered 3 to 1 — the general, already celebrated in song as a six-time Olympic champion — led the charge into battle. Milo of Croton, hero of the ancient world, would achieve victory once more.
What makes a person a hero? For ancient Greeks, a hero was someone who performed such remarkable acts that they left an enduring, immortal memory. Milo of Croton’s name would live on through the ages as one of the most dominant figures of the ancient Olympic games. He like other ancient Greek competitors – such as boxers Theagenes, Euthymos, and Kleomedes — made the jump in Greek minds from the realm of mere athlete to that of a hero. A jump driven on the strength of their athletic feats.
Like any definition, the word ‘hero’ has changed with time. Under the unblinking eye of modern media, the word is used to capture all manners of altruism, unselfishness, and redemption. A pizza man saving the life of a customer; an elderly woman fighting off jewel thieves; a star athlete seeking redemption.
Arthur Ashe, the humanitarian and tennis great, said of modern heroes, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” Selfless acts abound in modern life: A police officer making late-night rounds; a soldier sacrificing life and limb; a teacher empowering their pupils. These quiet acts stitch together the fabric of our country into something whole, outside the burning glare of fame, fortune, and controversy.
Like ‘hero,’ the word ‘athlete’ comes from ancient Greece — defined as “one who competes for a prize.” And for many of America’s most accomplished athletes ‘who compete for a prize,’ a visit to the White House has never been the most coveted destination. Michael Jordan skipped out on visiting George HW Bush. Larry Bird ditched Ronald Reagan. Tom Brady declined an invitation from President Obama. And after Super Bowl victories in 2006 and 2009, James Harrison passed on the chance to visit George W Bush and Barack Obama.
Is Kaepernick a hero? In a league with a thin bench at quarterback, Kaepernick sits unsigned — despite his talent.
Nor has the nation’s highest office always shown appropriate reverence for its athletes. FDR didn’t have the courtesy to send Jesse Owens a telegram — let alone a White House invitation — after Owens brought home four gold medals under the gaze of Hitler after the 1936 Berlin Olympic games.
So maybe it shouldn’t have been a big surprise that President Donald Trump ‘withdrew’ the invitation to the White House for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. The move came a day after Warriors star Stephen Curry said he would vote ‘no’ if the team was invited. Curry told ESPN,”I don’t know why he feels the need to target certain individuals rather than others…it’s kind of beneath a leader of a country to go that route. That’s not what leaders do.”
Trump went on to continue attacks on NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. This move unified often-quarreling players, ownership, and league management in condemnation of the president’s divisive language.
Colin Kaepernick, then-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, started kneeling in 2016. Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality. Shortly after he began the protest, he explained his position in an interview with the NFL, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Is Kaepernick a hero? In a league with a thin bench at quarterback, Kaepernick sits unsigned — despite his talent. If, as Arthur Ashe said, the measure of true heroism is to serve others at whatever personal cost, the polarizing Kaepernick is worthy of a conversation about the title.
President Trump’s attack on America’s most popular sport, one of America’s most popular teams, and one of America’s most divisive figures in Kaepernick, comes at a time when the U.S. faces tremendous challenges around the world. There are no easy solutions for a North Korea advancing in capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. After 17 years of war in Afghanistan, a durable political solution remains elusive. Terrorism continues to pose a direct threat to America and her allies. Those challenges will not be resolved through bullying of athletes or the badgering of owners.
Instead, a lesson from the ancient games reverberates today. Athletes like Milo of Croton became celebrated because they had the opportunity to defeat the best. They were able to do that because political leaders demonstrated magnanimity in leadership around the games. The Olympic Truce was signed between quarrelsome kings in the 9th century BC to allow athletes and fans alike to travel with safe passage to and from the games.
The truce helped make the games great. It froze the conflict of Hellas — and brought together society, if for a moment, to compete in the same arena. It was on this grand stage, amidst the watching eyes of the Greek world, that rare air existed so that deeds of mere men had the opportunity to live on forever. The seeds of heroism were found in the unity of a people — and in the athletes seeking greatness who came from their small and large towns to achieve in the Athenian spotlight.
So long as leaders today choose to seed division, America may well continue to search in vain for heroes that can unite us. Many of whom stand, and kneel, right before our very eyes.