A masterful show of skill … and values

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With hugs, tears and family at his side, Phil Mickelson received the adulation of the crowds Sunday at The Masters Tournament.

It was an inspiring moment as the winner embraced his wife, who has battled cancer over the past year, and the camera zoomed in on the single tear streaming down his cheek.

Well, disregard it all. Doesn’t matter. His personal life is his own business.

Sound familiar? It should.

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It’s the flip side of the argument made by a cynical band of former athletes, sports talk show hosts, bloggers and newspaper columnists over the past five months since it was revealed that another sports titan, Tiger Woods, was a psychopathic womanizer.

The sorry state of Woods’ personal life began to unravel after a bizarre early-morning car accident outside his Florida home. Since then he has gone the usual rehab/isolation/confession/apology route, emerging again last week to the hearty cheers of adoring crowds at Augusta National.

The same people who would probably disown their brother-in-law for Tiger-like behavior welcomed Woods back with open arms.

And while Woods didn’t win the tournament, he certainly didn’t disappoint. As he always does, Woods brought both high drama and high TV ratings to the tournament. He was in the hunt until the final few holes and finished tied for fourth, but well off Mickelson’s pace.

Even as the tournament was under way, the airwaves and Web were still debating that perpetual question:  Are athletes really role models? Do we have a right to be angry and disappointed by their unethical or illegal behavior?

Or, do we unfairly put them on a pedestal? Is what they do off the field or the court their own business? Are they to be appreciated for their skills with no accompanying expectations?

Sunday’s dramatic finish showed why we would be cheating ourselves, as well as the best athletes, if we all thought this way.

If we believe that badly behaving athletes deserve a pass for their personal lives, then the opposite must also be true — that we should ignore those athletes who lead exemplary lives or overcome family or personal adversity to play and succeed.

And that wouldn’t simply be out of some false sense of moral consistency. No, if we truly bought into an athlete’s clean and heroic image, then our belief in that person could be dashed at any moment.

The only way to avoid disappointment, then, would be to live without any expectations of anyone — our leaders, sports figures, co-workers, perhaps even our own families.

Sadly, we would also be keeping ourselves from deriving inspiration from the people in our midst, whether they be the person sitting next to us at work or the man making the perfect golf shot.

In the end, that would be foolish and probably impossible.

So we respect Mickelson and take inspiration from his story, knowing that he may one day disappoint, and hoping he never does.

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