Fri, Nov 03, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: A sports star with a lesson

Taiwanese society may be divided about many things, but there is one thing almost everyone agrees on: New York Yankees pitcher Wang Chien-ming (王建民) is a Taiwanese hero.

At a time when political divisions in this country have become especially pronounced and bitter, when the people are dissatisfied with almost everything, from their political leaders to the economy, Taiwan needs a unifying force. Although he may never have envisioned himself in this role, Wang has become a symbol of the nobler aspirations of the Taiwanese.

Wang has treated his stardom in a manner that befits a homegrown hero -- with unassuming aplomb and humility. The media here can be especially aggressive and intrusive, and Wang has had to fight to maintain his privacy and his reputation.

His desire to do so is characteristic of a simple propriety that many of our political and social leaders would do well to emulate: Wang has asked to be judged on his merits, not on the conduct of his family members, on aspects of his background over which he had no control, or on an ability to mask failure with pretty words.

Wang says little, because his actions speak for him. This is another lesson for Taiwanese leaders.

Obviously, there are dangers in turning a sports hero into a national icon. Anyone seeking to influence public opinion -- from legislators to salespeople -- has tried to associate himself or herself with Wang. They hope that the goodwill Wang has gar-nered through his brilliant athletic performances will rub off on them, or better still, will be translated into cold cash.

So when it was reported that a Tainan sports store was selling tickets to a Wang signature-signing event for US$500, the public uproar was immediate.

If the organizers of the event think they can cash in on the local sports hero without a backlash, they're wrong.

Everyone remembers the Michael Jordan debacle in May 2004, when Nike unscrupulously duped basketball fans into paying exorbitant sums for what turned out to be a mere 90-second glimpse of the "God of Basketball," as he is known by local fans.

That cold-hearted businesspeople would try to take advantage of young, enthusiastic fans to fill bank accounts is not surprising. But Nike learned very quickly that although you can callously toy with the dreams of young sports fans, you cannot do it with impunity. The company spent weeks performing damage control to contain the fallout from that fiasco.

There is nothing wrong with a company hiring Wang to make a public appearance. His fans get a chance to see their hero up close, Wang gets to show his personal side, and the business makes money. It is a reasonable arrangement.

But as a role model for his young fans, and as a hero for Taiwanese everywhere, Wang must guard against dishonest people who try to use him for their own gain. He has the power to harness his popularity to help others, and he should do so by requiring event organizers to donate portions of their proceeds to charity.

Wang makes no secret of the fact that he wants to provide well for his wife and parents, and does the usual rounds of celebrity endorsements. But he also spends a lot of his spare time making volunteer appearances for charities. The pitcher has thus far cautiously tempered his celebrity with a careful dose of modesty and moderation, and there is no reason to think he will do otherwise in the future.

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