Brad Gilbert, Andre Agassi’s long time tennis coach, takes a no-harm, no-foul attitude to the crystal meth revelations, but Harsha Bhogle is not quite as forgiving. The core of Harsha’s argument is contained in this clip:
At the best of times it’s a flawed equation, this assumption that a fine sportsman is a fine person, but it exists and I fear Agassi may have given people reason to indulge in drugs.
Precisely the problem I find with the fuss being made of Agassi’s revelations. We know him, and followed him, for his brilliance as a tennis player — whence the need to elevate him into a template for us to live our lives by? Put differently — isn’t it enough that a sportsperson entertains us in his or her chosen domain of activity, which is what they get paid to do? Is it also necessary for them to be worthy of canonisation?
If Agassi had taken performance-enhancing drugs, it would have been quite another matter: that is cheating pure and simple, and goes against the grain of what we expect from sport. By no stretch of the imagination, though, can crystal meth be called a performance-enhancer — the opposite is true, if anything.
So the worst you can say about this situation is that the man did recreational drugs. Is that something I would want my child to emulate? No — but then, I wouldn’t want my child to emulate my experiments with drugs either [quite a while ago, so those raised eyebrows of yours can come right back down; outside of an occasional joint, I don’t indulge now].
In any case, what are the tennis authorities supposed to do now, publicly defrock Agassi, strip him of his many titles? The question of his legacy is in any case not grist for the official mill — a player’s legacy is in the minds and hearts of the followers of his sport; some will likely gasp in indignation that they were suckered into emotionally investing in a druggie, while others will remember those moments of incandescent brilliance he brought to the game, and forget the rest.
In course of random browsing just now, I refreshed my memory of just what the man brought to his sport. Way back in the late 1980s, US tennis was looking for a savior — and found a temperamental, tempestuous talent [here, dating back to that time, is an early appreciation on Sports Illustrated]. What struck me about this piece is the glimpse of what such enormous national expectations can do to you:
So desperate are tennis fans in the United States for a new crown prince that not even juniors are spared the scrutiny. When Michael Chang won his first match in a main draw at the United States Open last August, the question was heard again. ”Is this the one?”
Aaron Krickstein knows about expectations. He was a phenom at 17, ranked No. 7 in the world. Surely, this was the one. By the time he was 20, he was considered washed up, dropping to No. 61 last year. Krickstein has only recently begun to show he may survive, after all.
Later in the same year, the media was already proclaiming the end of its search and the anointing of the new crown prince of American tennis [in passing, check out this article on what it takes — and takes out of you — to be a teen star]. From there to here has been a memorable ride — and despite that hit of crystal meth, I find my own memories of the man remain largely untarnished [incidentally, IMHO Harsha is a bit off base when he compares the Agassi episode with the Roman Polanski affair — in doing drugs, Agassi hurt no one but himself; what Polanski did was a crime on another person].
Here’s the lengthiest extract from his book that I’ve been able to find; I’ve got a print out for reading at home tonight, but even a quick glance indicates there is more to this book than a hit of crystal meth — our thirst for scandal being what it is, though, it is only that one episode that is consistently hitting the headlines.
In passing, some — including Harsha — have suggested that maybe we would all be better off if Agassi had kept some facts to himself. Again, I’d want to disagree: in interviews, in the profiles that proliferate in magazines and newspapers, and even in their books, sportsmen too often tend to dishonesty. I’d far rather read of, and learn from, a flawed human being than be treated to the whitewashed ‘memories’ of a putative ‘saint’.