Suzy Favor Hamilton was voted Big Ten Conference female athlete of the year so many times they named the award after her.
It was a fitting tribute for the former University of Wisconsin and Olympic distance runner, who became Wisconsin’s favorite daughter and America’s sweetheart during her stellar track career and subsequent work as a public speaker and pitchwoman.
But what once seemed like a well-deserved guarantee of eternal fame for the 44-year-old Favor Hamilton has now become just another generic, faceless Big Ten award.
Conference spokesman Scott Chipman said Tuesday that Favor Hamilton’s name was removed from the female athlete of the year award after discussions between the Big Ten and UW. It was the latest and potentially most lasting fallout from Favor Hamilton’s stunning admission last year that she was living a secret life as a $600-an-hour Las Vegas prostitute.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time a prominent name has been scrubbed off an award in the Big Ten, which loves to attach names to trophies so much it put the names of two past greats on each of its football awards.
For instance, the conference’s top running back earns the Ameche-Dayne award each season.
A cynic might suggest the Big Ten is merely covering its bases in the event one of the award’s namesakes suffers a fall from grace. Don’t laugh. Favor Hamilton is the second legendary name dropped by the Big Ten from one of its awards after information came out that sparked a controversy.
The conference removed the late Joe Paterno’s name from its football championship trophy in 2011 after child sex-abuse allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky were uncovered and the school subsequently fired Paterno, its longtime coach and a man thought by many to be one of the most decent, moral men in college athletics. Paterno’s offense was doing nothing to stop Sandusky, a lapse in judgement that forever tainted one of football’s greatest legacies.
Permanently putting names on trophies has never been a good idea, and now we know why. Things have a way of changing.
In the last two years, the Big Ten has removed the names of two of its greatest athletic icons because of events that happened outside the sports arena. Both serve as strong reminders that just because someone can run fast or jump high doesn’t mean they’re a role model, even if they play one on television.
Indeed, the Favor Hamilton story was another in a long line of hard lessons that athletes usually aren’t who we think they are or want them to be. It is a cautionary tale for those of us — media and fans alike — who create and perpetuate pristine images of athletes when we don’t know the entire story and never will.
As we have seen time and again, athletes are very good at constructing images that appeal to the public. We watch them perform during their careers and we like to think we know them, but we don’t. Often, we don’t realize until later that those images are facades.
Oscar Pistorius, who became a worldwide hero during the 2012 Olympics, is facing murder charges in his native South Africa. NBC probably has an entire vault of puff pieces, all accompanied by sob-inducing music, about the sprinter who ran on prosthetic legs. However, it turned out they all missed the point about the so-called Blade Runner.
There have been countless such fall-from-grace stories in sports. Most recently, it has been Aaron Hernandez, who is in a Boston jail after being arrested on murder charges. Just the other day, I watched a TV network replay a recent piece in which Hernandez claimed to be a reformed man. Umm, guess not.
Before Hernandez, there was Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones and all those pumped-up players from baseball’s apparently ongoing steroid era, just to name a few. Every one of those athletes had the same problem: They said one thing in public and did something else in private.
I know, athletes being unmasked as frauds is an old story. It’s just that the story doesn’t hit this close to home very often.
Favor Hamilton is one of UW’s most celebrated athletes and was the Big Ten’s female athlete of the year three straight times starting in 1988. She ran in the Olympics in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
Favor Hamilton tweeted last year that her work as an escort provided an “escape” and the reasons for it were “very much related to depression.” She declined to comment on the Big Ten’s action Tuesday but responded to State Journal reporter Andy Baggot via email that she is “focused on getting well and making amends to my loved ones. That’s all for now.”
The Big Ten’s action came as no surprise. There is precedent for it, and there is reason for it. As for Favor Hamilton, she made a mistake and she continues to pay dearly for it. Then again, in one way or another, we’re all paying for it.