The conundrum of sport’s role model debate

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

By Glenn Mitchell, Glenn Mitchell is a Roar Expert

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    John McEnroe was an artist with a tennis racquet. At the net he had possibly the best hands in the game.

    Through a storied career he won seven grand slam singles titles and a further ten in doubles and mixed doubles.

    But much of the McEnroe story, and indeed legacy, does not revolve around his on-court performances but his myriad antics and histrionics.

    McEnroe inherited the role of the sport’s agent provocateur from the volatile Romanian Ilie Nǎstase.

    When McEnroe exploded the shrapnel reverberated around the world.

    Many people globally referred to him as a bad sport and perhaps even worse in some people’s eyes – a poor role model.

    Yet many of those same people switched the TV on whenever he was in action.

    It is a perverse way of looking at things – vilify him for his carry-on but tune in hoping to see it.

    And therein lays the conundrum that surrounds the role model debate in sport.

    Bad news makes news and if something untoward happens on the sporting field of play you can guarantee it will attract plenty of attention.

    One of the most violent acts in recent AFL history occurred at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney in early 2008 when Swans’ full-forward Barry Hall delivered a left hook to the jaw of West Coast’s Brent Staker, who was unconscious before his limp body struck the turf.

    Left feeling like an un-tuned television that was broadcasting static, Staker took no further part in the game.

    Immediately the call went out about what a violent and crude act it was especially as it occurred well off the ball.

    The whole episode produced more fall-out than the Manhattan Project.

    What sort of example did it set for youngsters?

    Just what sort of role model was Hall?

    Well, perhaps the best way to find out the answer to those questions is to show the incident on TV as often as you can over the ensuing days.

    Hall king-hit Staker on a Saturday night.

    During the remainder of the match and after its conclusion, the event was aired extensively by the broadcaster.

    The next day it was all over the news bulletins, as it was on Monday and Tuesday, the night he faced the AFL tribunal.

    And just for good measure most networks decided to play it again on the Wednesday night when they announced his seven-match suspension.

    By the end of it, it’s a wonder we didn’t all wind up with stitches in our eyebrows.

    Incidents such as the Hall-Staker one become enormous fodder for most TV networks and also tend to dominate radio talkback air time.

    In the case of this particular episode it even found its way on to TV screens as far afield as the United States’ ESPN network and even Denmark.

    Now, maybe I’m wrong, but to get up in arms about it on one hand for the shocking example it shows to children and then to televise it ad nauseam seems to be largely incongruous.

    Society has always had, and most likely always will have, a large degree of blood lust and fascination in violence, especially on a sporting field.

    It is akin to the way traffic always slows down when there is an accident, just so everyone can have a good gawk.

    What Hall did can in no way be condoned but to subsequently ram it down peoples’ throats, especially children’s, at every opportunity for four days only highlights the incident, and in turn, continues to be totally counterproductive to the role model theory.

    It is often the media who drive the ‘role model’ debate when it comes to sport. Commentators vocally air their disapproval of violent acts when they occur and state how it portrays a very poor image for both the code and in particular the youngsters who follow it.

    And then, of course, after the indignation and disapproval their networks decide the best way to show how bad it is is to simply keep showing it – over and over.

    Talk about a total dichotomy.

    And what about those who bemoan the fact that much of modern day sport has been sanitised in regard to the nature of on-field violence and aggression?

    That’s right, some people feel the game is not the same ‘spectacle’ nowadays as the good-old fashioned biffo, which often occurred many metres away from the play, has been policed out of the game.

    And yet, when it does return, albeit fleetingly nowadays a la Hall’s actions, there is a massive backlash with people stating how bad and irresponsible such behaviour is.

    And back to where we started with McEnroe and tennis.

    It wasn’t that long ago that the fans were decrying Pete Sampras’ lack of personality on the court – it would appear that a mastery of his sport and 14 grand slam titles weren’t enough to quench the followers’ thirst.

    If we want to try and foster a greater role model example with regard to our sportsmen, how about we cut back on the number of times we highlight the occasional poor behaviour out on the field.

    By doing so, the exposure of such acts to potentially impressionable young minds will be largely avoided, or at least, greatly limited.

    Or would the bulk of us feel a little disheartened not to be able to relive the ‘moment’ a few more times?

    PS: A poser for you. Here’s the link to the Hall-Staker incident on YouTube –

    And some of McEnroe’s most famous rants –

    I know you’ll simply let them go through to the ‘keeper because you’ve seen it all before.

    Or will you?

    Glenn Mitchell
    Glenn Mitchell

    After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.

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    The Crowd Says (11)

    • January 24th 2013 @ 5:44am
      Johnno said | January 24th 2013 @ 5:44am | ! Report

      Glen, John Mcenroe was an artist. Artists are not role models, they are flawed in the name of art as John was, it’s there role as artists to explore the depths of life, that regular people can not.
      The create, they are life expressed, and John was beautiful, angry, robust, tempremental, tender, a man of many rhythms, and loves to express himself in the name of art. So when comparing art to role models, that is not there role.
      There was only 1 artist in sport, he was John Mcenroe.
      But other sportsmen and sportswomen are different. They are required to be role models, if the clubs or individual want to keep fans.

    • January 24th 2013 @ 7:26am
      Big Time said | January 24th 2013 @ 7:26am | ! Report

      Dare I say it, but as Reg Reagan most famously quoted “Bring Back the Biff”.

      Sometimes a sportspersons frustration can boil over, and they occasionally lose their cool. When they do, doesn’t it make great TV?

      Look at Lyetton, he has been called a bad sport as we have seen him lose the plot on occasion. Off the court he is married, with kids and does a lot of good things. Paul Gallen is extremely aggressive on the field (recall him gouging a cut in a players head), but off the field he is a gentelmen and does a lot of charity work. Are these blokes BAD role models?? I think not.

      We have it all wrong. We should not get a persons on field demeanor get mixed up with what that person is really like. This whole role model thing is out of whack. It is a parents responsibility to install values in their children, not some person who possibly didn’t finish school but became a success in an area they excelled at, sport. Thats not there fault, and if they do make a few mistakes on the way, so be it. Lets not try and palm off the responsibilty of raising children to sportspeople. If a parent finds the need to do that, then maybe they should not have had kids. We live in a blame society, no one takes responsibility for themselves, and unfortunately sports people ofen have to wear the brunt of this. Do we expect the same for even higher paid rockstars, movie stars or or or……. politicians!!!!!!!!!

      The Matt Johns incident was a perfect example of trial by media. What he did was not illegal, the woman consented. “Morally” it may not have been the right thing to do, but at the end of the day, believe it or not people, this type of thing is not too uncommon. Its been going on since the Romans. He was obviously not proud of it, and his wife and Johns had already dealt with the issue. Yet all of a sudden the media gets hold of this years later, the moral police come to the fore, and kapoww, his family are forced to go through it all again. He was thrown to the wolves by people like a certain female newspaper journalist (who by the way has the odd DUI offence), without any thought of how his family were coping. You know what though, to me Johns is a good role model. He openly admitted what he did, whilst not illegal, was wrong, given that he was married. He had already manned up and dealt with the issue with his wife and family. People make mistakes, good people admit it. As for the people who persecuted him, I have a problem with their morals, and I think they should be the ones who the spotlight is on. Why not dig up some dirt on them. I tell you why, no body cares, it does not fill newspapers. These jornalists and reports do not care about what is right or wrong (despite what they tell you), they have one agenda, make headlines and get paid more money.

      Johnno, unless a person does something absolutely obscene, they will not lose fans. As much as newspapers and do gooders (who generally are not really sports fans anyway) like to beat their chest, we as fans are generally quite a forgiving bunch. I said I would never support Dragons if Wendell played for them, but no sooner had he signed the contract and I was his biggest fan!! Go figure.

      • January 24th 2013 @ 2:22pm
        clipper said | January 24th 2013 @ 2:22pm | ! Report

        Big Time – you’re drawing a long bow there. We don’t expect the same for rock stars, as they are acting out their persona – they’re expected to behave like they do – you wouldn’t be surprised at Pete Doherty or Russell Brand as they act like they behave, but they don’t pretend to be the well respected family man. I also think if any politician got involved in a homo erotic gang bang, their career would be over pretty quick.
        Do you think sports stars should be able to do what they want without having to worry about journalists uncovering unsavory behaviour? After all, they chose to be in the public eye and they, like politicians have to watch every step in today’s world where everyone potentially is armed with a camera.
        I don’t understand why so many sports fans have to be apologists – it’s like they think it’s an attack on their code of choice and no matter how disgusting the actions of their hero, they must be supported at all costs. Just accept the act was morally reprehensible, or better still, don’t comment. The odd outburst or strike is different as it’s spur of the moment and most people enjoy watching it, even if they pour scorn upon the culprit.

    • January 24th 2013 @ 11:11am
      Australian Rules said | January 24th 2013 @ 11:11am | ! Report

      “The whole episode produced more fall-out than the Manhattan Project.”

      Wow!

    • January 24th 2013 @ 1:33pm
      Jocelyn McLennan said | January 24th 2013 @ 1:33pm | ! Report

      John McEnroe himself regrets most of his outbursts. He can look back now with the wisdom of hindsight and maturity that he has in his 50’s. We all grow up eventually. People react to the desire to win and succeed differently. Author Richard Evans titled his McEnroe biography so spot on. “Rage for Perfection” Was he a role model for etiquette? No… Did he inspire people to pick up tennis rackets and create a boom in the sport? Yes. It all depends on how you define “Role Model”

    • January 24th 2013 @ 3:22pm
      Jill Scanlon said | January 24th 2013 @ 3:22pm | ! Report

      Well I DID let it go through to the keeper but then I may be a bit jaded.
      I’m of an age where I have watched and loved sport for long enough to be well over any attraction to that sort of display.
      I agree that the media play a HUGE role in the perpetuation of this behaviour being of ‘public interest’ but then I suppose it’s akin to the argument that Reality TV MUST be attractive to the public because everyone watches it.

      I also find that – working in the media myself – I become very agitated at the editorial decision making you highlighted Glenn, where too much never seems to be enough.

      An interesting paradox though, which I was reminded of recently, is how the broadcast media still refuse to show a ‘pitch invader’ (naked or not) at the cricket, on the basis it was never and still isn’t appropriate and would only serve to encourage others to do the same.
      A curiosity surely!

      • Columnist

        January 24th 2013 @ 9:59pm
        Glenn Mitchell said | January 24th 2013 @ 9:59pm | ! Report

        Hi Jill, I think your comparison with reality TV is very apt.

    • January 24th 2013 @ 3:56pm
      Tlux said | January 24th 2013 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

      Just because someone is a sportsman, doesn’t mean they need to be a role model for kids.

      Let the good ones, like the Adam Gilchrist’s, Craig Lowndes and Libby Trickets be role models for kids. But accept that sport is not about being nice, its about being better. So if someone is better and nice, great.

      This is what has gone wrong with Swimming Australia and the NRL. Everyone expected to be a role model for children. But that gets ruined when the athlete gets caught drunk at a pub at 2:30am. Exactly how many kids are at the pub then to witness a role model’s downfall?

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