November 05, 2009
Andre Agassi deserves every bit of the criticism he is receiving for using crystal methamphetamine and misleading authorities to weasel his way out of a positive doping test result. He has added to the growing disillusionment many have with stars who once were admired without hesitation.
However, Agassi does not deserve the criticism from players and outsiders who question his right to open up about the past. Rather, Agassi should be admired for revealing a dark secret he could have taken to his grave.
Athletes are ripped for refusing to address the past (e.g. Mark McGwire), but now also for revealing every painful detail?
Can't have it both ways. Someone should tell that to the players.
"To me it seems terrible," Rafael Nadal said. "Why is he saying this now that he has retired?"
Martina Navratilova's response was even harsher. It was "not as much shock that he did it," she suggested, "as shock he lied about it and didn't own up to it. He's up there with Roger Clemens, as far as I'm concerned. He owned up to it (in the book), but it doesn't help now."
Someone needs to brief Martina. Last time we checked, Mr. Clemens hasn't owned up to, well, anything, and probably never will.
Roger Federer -- who also joined in the criticism -- Nadal and, to some extent, the retired Navratilova depend on the sport's credibility for their livelihood. When that credibility is damaged -- and Agassi definitely left tennis with a black eye -- they are also damaged, and it's never clear what consequences will follow. That scares them.
It shouldn't. Nadal needs to have more faith in the fans. Fans don't assume the whole sport is dirty because of how one player behaved. They don't think it's totally clean, either. No sport is.
The sport will survive. If anything, Agassi's revelations may help tennis and its players. There will be those players in the future, facing pressures only they can understand, who might now avoid making the numerous mistakes he made. That is how we learn, not by keeping the truth hidden.
A player's parents may learn, too, that treating their talented son or daughter the way Agassi's father allegedly did may work in the short term on the court, but could harm them in life more than they could ever imagine.
It doesn't mean we should rush to give Agassi the Pulitzer or forgive his actions. He is no saint for coming clean. But he is no villain, either. He is, when you strip away the talent and packaging, a flawed man who is sharing those flaws.
Some may suggest Agassi's reputation will never be the same and that he should have thought about the ramifications before confessing.
Of course he thought about them. Agassi is a bright guy. But it's clear his main motivation was not keeping up his reputation. If he was going to tell his story, he was going to tell it straight. Agassi wasn't interested in providing the sanitized version to ensure future marketability.
Incidentally, athletes generally aren't condemned for selling jeans or deodorant or cars. Why are books different? Books, at least, offer insight and introspection.
Agassi's book and the negative publicity it generated may hurt him, but how Agassi conducted himself on the court once he grew past the juvenile behavior in his teens and early 20s is how he'll be remembered.
For his legendary battles with his top rival, Pete Sampras. He showed class, in victory and defeat. Especially in defeat.
For being the first American since Don Budge to capture all four majors. Not even Sampras accomplished that feat.
For the superb conditioning that allowed him to compete into his mid-30s when many of his peers were long gone from the game.
For the wonderful charity work he has done over the years. He has given away millions, more than the vast majority of athletes. Nobody ever forced him to do that.
That's how Agassi will be remembered. Or should be.
And now for having the courage to deal with the most sensitive subject imaginable -- himself -- and not ignoring the truth, even when the truth is ugly as it often is.