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As an avid sports fan and follower I have always been bewildered by the notion that people view professional athletes as role models.
Like many others, I have been disappointed in the transgressions of athletes for some time.
From the Essendon FC doping scandal, to Lance Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, Marion Jones being stripped of her five Olympic medals and Tiger Woods playing a lot more than 18 holes over a three-year period.
It’s unfathomable to think that young, impressionable minds and the wider public view these athletes as role models both on and off the playing field.
As Colin Cowherd of ESPN puts it, “Athletes aren’t role models, they’re artists with flaws”. I wholeheartedly agree.
What are the roles and responsibilities of a professional athlete? They are entertainers, and we, the public, are consumers. The job description of athletes on game day is to perform.
Hence, we pay, you perform, is a seemingly harmless contract. Why then, are we so invested in teams and athletes, and why do we care so much about their personal off-field indiscretions?
Sport on a professional level is performance. It is a show, akin to walking into an art gallery and admiring a painting, viewing a rock concert, or seeing a film. People enjoy the artwork, gig or movie but they don’t analyse and scrutinise the artist, musician or actor, so why do they do it with such vigour for athletes?
Did Guns and Roses get scrutinised for smoking cigarettes or being off-key or off time on a rendition of November Rain? I hardly think so. Similarly, one of the great artists, Jackson Pollock, battled alcoholism, but this didn’t appear to hamper his artworks.
The notion that athletes are role models in other facets of life other than on the playing field is absurd, but perhaps the athletes themselves are not to blame.
Athletes do not choose to be role models. They are considered to be role models purely by default and at the hands of the media and the 24-hour news cycle, which makes what once was private now very public. This doesn’t mean that the athletes have to embrace this responsibility that has been so adamantly thrust upon them.
What we often forget is the reality that athletes are human, just like us. They have flaws, deficiencies and skeletons in the closet like everyone. Furthermore, Bleacher Report‘s senior analyst Soven Berry has strong views on why athletes make terrible role models.
Berry purports that generally when an athlete has made it to pro level sports, it means they have been spoilt since they were juniors. They have been chosen out of line-ups for school sports, and pampered by coaches, teammates and parents. As a result of this constant pampering, they feel they aren’t accountable for their behaviour off the field (see Patrick Kane and Johnny Manziel).
Consequently, most athletes haven’t learnt how to deal with the fame, money and power and lack humility and wisdom. According to ESPN analyst Skip Bayless, athletes are also subjected to a plethora of temptations once they reach the upper echelon of sports and celebrity status.
These are temptations that would never be offered or within grasp of the everyday Joe, and are often readily available. Subsequently, these athletes have not been taught how to resist these temptations or be responsible, and often excuse drug or alcohol use as a form of stress relief from the constant pressure they are under (see Michael Phelps and Andrew Johns).
However, Benjamin Conkey wrote an article on The Roar that states that, “being a role model should be like giving to charity. It should be something you do naturally and not forced into”.
Unfortunately, I feel as though a lot of athletes try to force themselves into the mould of being the perfect role model when it just doesn’t fit their personality or lifestyle.
Conkey also emphasises the fact that it’s the negative stories about athletes that get published and draw media attention, while many generous deeds done by athletes go unnoticed.
Matt Watson also had an article featured on The Roar in which he purports that athletes have a duty to be role models but often neglect it. They are crucial as role models in society and have the power to influence us in both positive and negative ways.
What is also intriguing is how the public and the media label professional athletes as heroes. Some people even let their teams’ results on the weekend overrun their personal lives, and sports scores determine moods and emotions.
In reality, athletes are participants in the entertainment business. For the most part, they’re not relatable to you or me. They are a brand, in their own way, making huge amounts of money from endorsements and contracts.
Firstly, how can the public relate to athletes who have supermodel spouses, large sums of money and play sport for a living, and secondly how can we model ourselves on such an unrealistic way of life, a way that very few people will ever get to experience.
One former athlete who echoed these views was NBA star Charles Barkley, in that famous Nike Air commercial of the 1990s. While the rest of Nike’s ads were encouraging us to “be like Mike” (Michael Jordan that is), this commercial was the first one put out by Nike that featured something resembling the truth.
As Barkley proclaims, “I’m not paid to be a role model, I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models”. Kids and teenagers should feel free to embrace sports stars and emulate them and their on-field heroics, but don’t confuse a player’s stats or performance with character.
Now, I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong for kids to admire athletes or to want to emulate them and their ability. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to run like Usain Bolt, kick a goal like Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin or swing a club like Tiger, but looking up to athletes to follow their off-field behaviour is bordering on moronic.
It is admirable how hard professional athletes train, the strict diets they must endure and the recovery sessions they tolerate (such as ice baths) in order to get their body up to optimal physical condition. Couple that with the mental ability it takes to complete at the highest level, the pressure and the stress of having to perform, and it becomes a daunting task for even the most accomplished athlete.
And it’s not a job where you can pull a sickie or have an easy day in the office, it takes dedication and commitment. To play at the elite level, professional athletes must in turn, give up a lot, including being away from their family for months at a time.
It’s encouraging that kids and adolescents want to train like athletes, eat healthy like athletes, and play hard like athletes, however, when it comes to social responsibility and role models for off-field behaviour, it may be worth looking elsewhere.