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The NFL: An Unsettling New Religion

From wearing jerseys with their name on it to desperately seeking a fleeting high five, fans have put NFL players on a tall pedestal from which the fall is often steep. There are new gods on Mount Olympus and they play football.

Sharper was a hero with the 2009 Superbowl champions Saints
Sharper was a hero with the 2009 Superbowl champions Saints

"He is certainly the last person I would have expected that from." These were some of the words I heard the past few days from National Football League fans on Twitter, bemoaning the latest bout of regrettable (read criminal) behavior involving one of their favorite player.

These could have been fans of the Baltimore Ravens, whose star running back Ray Rice allegedly punched his fiancée at a casino in Atlantic City, rendering her unconscious. Rice then dragged the lifeless woman out on an elevator, a grim scene that was captured by surveillance cameras.

Then again, it might have been New Orleans Saints fans, as a former Saint and all-pro safety is facing several charges of drugging and raping women in at least three different states. The good looking, smooth-talking Darren Sharper, who until recently was an in-studio analyst with the NFL Network, has left NFL fans across the country speechless.

The truth is these words could have been uttered by fans of any of the 32 NFL teams. As the offseason hits, idle and bored gridiron warriors are now fully starting to take out their leftover testosterone-fueled frustration on society, to the delight of sportswriters everywhere looking to meet a deadline.

Rice and Sharper aren't the first NFL stars to supposedly commit heinous acts, but they certainly aren't the last. Yet, after each instance, I am amazed at the fans stunned reaction and ask myself: why are we still surprised? Here's what I think the answer is: because we thought we knew Darren Sharper and because we thought we knew Ray Rice.

The revelation that shouldn't be stunning at all is: we don't know them; we don't know that the affable Peyton Manning is this awesome aw-shucks guy he projects in his many commercials, just like we don't know that the brash and petulant Richard Sherman is an arrogant thug.

The unsettling reality of NFL aficionados' bewilderment after hearing of their favorite players fall from grace is the fact that too many of us simply are in blinding awe in front of our beloved modern-days gladiators.

Today fans can interact with NFL players on a daily basis via social media; all of sudden, these strangers, these superstars are almost like virtual close friends to us. We adulate them, they sometimes acknowledge us and we feel somewhat connected.

But the fascination goes much deeper. We love them because they make plays for our team. We hate them when they make plays for the other team. We want to take a picture with them, we try desperately to catch an elusive high-five; we pine for a retweet; please just one little retweet would so absolutely make our day.

For the privilege to get an autograph on that old hat we've had since the 1980s, we'd gladly elbow children and old folks out of the way. We get really upset when our team releases or trades one of these amazing men; we fight each other for even suggesting that we should trade this player or that player. They're our brothers, our sons, our virtual crushes, our champions, our heroes.

They're our heroes? Wait, I thought those were the guys that we send to Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and who knows where else, to protect our football-loving derrières. Maybe those guys become heroes in our eyes only when they come back between four planks and get a medal pinned to the beautifully-crafted Mahogany casket.

Then one day, our brothers, our sons, our virtual crushes, our heroes do something really bad; something awful. And we are floored. How could they? We knew them; we trusted them; we loved them, so much so that we even walked around with their name on our back.

Like gladiators in ancient Rome, adored by the crowds until they were defeated and killed by the next great challenger, we religiously revere professional athletes until they fall from the pedestal we built for them. Heartbroken, we then seek solace in the next gridiron god.

To him we shall offer our devotion and he will fill our hearts with football joy, for "that which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."