When athletes become stars they enter a galaxy where any light except that which shines on them is eclipsed. They are fawned over and coddled and pampered. Along the way they lose touch with reality.

For sports stars, behavior unacceptable among mortals is permissible.

We read and hear about the hard work and dedication it took for these stars to perfect their skills so that they might become, well, perfect. Or as close to it as they can. They and those who admire them talk about their work ethic and their challenges as if the struggles and goals are epic. Soon, as the famous sports cliche goes, they are believing their own press clippings.

It’s never been clear to me whether this anointing is to be envied or pitied. Glorious as the attention must be for those who bask in its glow, it must be equally chilling when it’s doused with the cold reality that all good things must end.

When it ends, when the cheering fades and the boos descend, cackling overhead like blackbirds, it gets dark and gloomy. It is an experience so foreign that the unreality of the star’s existence up to that point makes the dark days even cloudier.

And that brings us to Cindy Blodgett, now departed – not just gone but fired – from the University of Maine as its women’s basketball coach. Fired on the front page in embarrassing, 93-point type. It’s not the type of headline she grew accustomed to seeing as a star basketball player.

Even though I never saw her play, I’ve read enough about her heroics that I feel as though I had. In fact, I wish I had seen her. If someone thousands of miles from Maine could brag that one of the nation’s best high school and college women’s basketball players is from his home state, one can only imagine the pride that swelled in the chests of all Mainers who actually watched her work her on-court magic.

And, yes, there were the stories about her incredible hard work and dedication at home in the tiny town of Clinton, shooting, shooting and shooting some more on her way to becoming a prolific, legendary scorer, high school and college star and professional basketball player.

She scored more than 3,000 points at the University of Maine and set 20 school records.

Her accomplishments place her not only as Maine’s best-ever women’s basketball player but also, without respect to gender, one of our best basketball players at every level and one of the best athletes to ever represent this state.

Getting fired as a coach does not tarnish any of that luster. Handling your firing poorly dulls the finish. Being oblivious to the hard facts of coaching life or any other endeavor makes a person look spoiled and out of touch.

At her press conference following her dismissal she said she was “fired without cause,” and that nothing was said to her “from a wins-loss perspective.”

How could an athlete not know the significance of winning versus losing? How could a coach imagine that you get to keep a job after a 4-25 season that capped a four-year record of 24 wins and 94 losses?

How long do you think a football coach at, say, Notre Dame, would last with that record?

No one has to tell most coaches they need to win more games than they lose in order to keep their job. No one needs to be told they do not have a long time to make things happen.

Being fired is much tougher than doing the firing, but Athletic Director Steve Abbott was handed a plum one minute and a hot potato the next. One day after being promoted from “interim” status, Abbott faced the tough decision of asking a sports legend to leave. He showed he could make a difficult choice and make one quickly. That’s what’s expected of a leader.

He handled it with class, praising Blodgett for her accomplishments as a player and for the dignity she brought to Maine’s basketball program.

No one heard Abbott gripe when he lost in the state’s Republican primary for governor last year. There is no record of him suggesting that the race should have been decided on some basis other than who won the most votes.

There is a long-held belief in sports that losing can be instructive and, ironically, redemptive. Losing builds character and taunts us to fight back, preferably with a determined smile. Or so they say.

You do not become an athlete the caliber of Cindy Blodgett without having a lot of fight in you. She’ll undoubtedly fight through this and work her way back. To do it, she’ll eventually have to take responsibility for her own failures, but her refusal to do so immediately and her incredulity at being fired for losing too many games may not be entirely her fault.

That lack of self-accountability comes from the protective bubble created by a society that encloses its star athletes in an unreal galaxy where they float happily along and often forget that they, too, are mortal.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

 


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