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Mandela sets example for role models, world leaders

"I am fundementally an optimist." - Nelson Mandela


It's not often that the entire world, sporting or otherwise, can focus on a single story. And usually when it does, the story surrounds tragedy, unspeakable horror or major civil unrest, but last week it was impossible to turn on the news or pick up a paper without hearing about the loss of Nelson Mandela.

   For those who haven't followed the life of the former South African president, he was wrongly arrested as a terrorist and imprisoned from 1964 until his freedom in 1990. A year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, Mandela was elected as the country's first black president, a great achievement in a society more split down racial lines than anything most Americans can remember.

South Africa hosted the rugby world cup in 1995, and the most recent FIFA World Cup (that's soccer, ‘Merica) in 2010. The latest world cup was a remarkable achievement for the country, and it wouldn't have happened without the voice of Mandela campaigning for one of the most-watched events on the planet.

Though he wasn't a sports lover himself – Mandela at one point said he should finally learn the rules of cricket, one of his country's most popular sports – he understood the power of sports to bridge gaps between people. During his time in jail, he watched the other prisoners form a soccer league in secret, and once he was freed, watched as traditionally white sports like cricket and rugby began to de-segregate and add black players to their rosters.

With the death of Mandela, who passed on Friday, Dec. 6 at his home in Johannesburg, came countless stories of how he had touched lives around the globe. Public figures, word leaders, sports icons and regular citizens alike took several moments to talk about the Mandela's effect on their lives and the world around them, and the widespread outpouring of love and admiration made for more of a celebration than a moratorium.

Mandela's message of peace and acceptance resonated far outside the bounds of his own country, and though the United States was in a far different place in the battle against racism, he represented victory through harmony and the bravery to take a stand with his deeds even more than his words.

Though his legacy remains and the world is a far different – and far better – place thanks to the shifts Mandela was able to accomplish in his 95 years, we now struggle to find a figure who is worthy of the same kind of respect. So often in sports, we are let down by the people we look up to. Considered a classy guy in a classy sport, Tiger Woods fell from grace in 2009 after marital problems exposed a long string of infidelity, throwing a wrench in his golf game and destroying his reputation.

Brett Farve, beloved by fans from Green Bay for his many years as quarterback of the NFL's Packers, has tarnished his image in the years since leaving the city. Stringing out contract negotiations, playing for his longtime team's biggest rival and sending out inappropriate and distasteful photos of himself are sadly what many will remember at first about the wrangler-clad gunslinger instead of the many victories he achieved in his lifetime.

It's an unfortunate reality these days that we struggle to trust the people we might have looked up to in the past. Where do we go from here? If you hold out for a trustworthy, lovable character, you'll either come up empty-handed or be kept waiting for a lifetime. And is it okay to lower our standards in order to be happy with the figures we have in front of us?

At the moment, I don't know. Sure there are guys I like – LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum, for example – but the stories in the past few years have frustrated me enough to make me reluctant when it comes to supporting just about anyone.

The only solution I see is to constantly remind ourselves of the people who take fame and use it to heap blessings on their surroundings, regardless of personal qualms or quandaries. It's a different place with Mandela gone, but we can carry his example with us and hold our public figures to that same standard and perhaps, with the same bright outlook, make a difference.

“I am fundamentally an optimist,” said Mandela. “Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”