“Who's your hero?” Ask any kid this question and chances are you'll get one of three responses: their mom, their dad, or their favorite sports star. In many people's minds, the term “sports hero” is all but synonymous with “great athlete,” whether it refers to Dust Bowl-era boxer Joe Louis, gymnast Nadia Comaneci in Ceaușescu's Romania, or today's NBA golden boy, Kevin Durant.

But does it really make sense to conflate athleticism and heroism? Some sports-world observers—including retired NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—say it doesn't. Being a hero is supposed to be about putting others first, their thinking goes, whereas today's high-profile athletes make millions playing games or hawking products and often buy too heavily into the narrative of their own greatness. Calling such people heroes dilutes the term into insignificance.

I'm certainly sympathetic to this argument. To equate Michael Jordan or Shaun White with Mother Teresa is to cheapen the time-honored ideal of heroism: putting yourself at risk for a greater cause (lifesaving, social justice) without any expectation of reward. It's folly to suggest that athletes' on-court feats, no matter how jaw-dropping, are as heroic as those of people who sacrifice for others.

But I do think the sports-stars-as-heroes trope is more than just an artifact of our marketing-driven culture. There's a reason it feels so natural, so self-evident, to call our favorite athletes heroes. Athletics, more than most other human pursuits, is a grand metaphor for the struggles and triumphs of life—and as we watch, it's hard not to be inspired to our own courageous acts.

Think of “Miracle Man” quarterback Frank Reich, who rallied his Buffalo Bills from a 35-3 deficit to pull off the greatest NFL comeback win of all time over the Houston Oilers. Later, when talk swirled of Reich replacing starter Jim Kelly, he immediately dismissed the prospect. “I'm just having an awful lot of fun right now,” he said. And how about Japan's Mao Asada at this year's Sochi Olympics? After botching her short program, ruining any chance of a medal, she skated one of the most brilliant long programs of her life, effortlessly completing her signature triple axel. Even though she knew she couldn't win, she pushed herself to the limit to lift up her sport and her audience.

For the brief moments they appeared on a world stage, Reich and Asada displayed courage, determination, and even selflessness—and millions of spectators took note. This is no small thing, because real-life heroes need to show grit when confronted with adversity, remain faithful to worthy causes despite long odds, and endure suffering to achieve important goals. Research tells us that when people take honor codes seriously, such codes can actually change their behavior for the better. What is sport at its best if not an honor code made physical, a highlight reel of the highest values we can aspire to off the playing field?

No, most athletes aren't heroes, not in the sense of making real-world grand sacrifices. But the way they play (or run, or skate, or tumble) can inspire us to probe our own limits, to persist in the face of failure or injustice, and even—yes—to put ourselves on the line for a greater good.

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