The first problem with this question is that it’s difficult to get a consistent definition of what a role model is or should be.
If a sporting role model is defined as a politically correct adherent to societal norms, than it’s clear that sport is full of these types. The vast majority of athletes dutifully fulfil their contracts with no intention to disrupt or even question the status quo.
Like professionals of all kinds, most athletes view their job as an essential part of their own success, and they are reluctant to say or do anything that might jeopardise their career. This kind of rational self interest is hard to argue with if success is defined by dollars in the bank and plasma televisions.
Sport is lucrative, and it’s most lucrative for those who present the type of image that sponsors love. Bring to mind Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. Both men were the quintessence of a sponsor cash cow. That is until we learnt that neither was the paragon of virtue their public personas suggested.
If we hope to know what type of role model professional sport is likely to design, we must first acknowledge that athletes aren’t paid to do the right thing, they are paid to conform to the standards that deliver profits to corporations.
Once I understood that the typical sporting role model is simply an idea shaped and controlled by corporate dollars, I immediately became skeptical of the entire concept.
Sportspeople are people (ahem) that play sports. And it’s clear that the hero-worshipping of people who play games for a living is detrimental to both fans and athletes. Children imbued with the idea that sportspeople represent the pinnacle of any domain outside of their chosen sport have been done a disservice. And athletes subjected to increasingly unrealistic ideals will invariably remind us of their resemblance to the rest of society.
And we don’t have to cast our minds far into history to learn that real role models are almost never celebrated at the time they clash with the establishment.
Was Muhammad Ali a role model when he refused the military draft to fight in Vietnam in 1964? Certainly not according to the law, the majority of Americans and a litany of sponsors.
Were African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos role models when they raised their fists in a “human rights salute” during the 1968 Olympics? Not according to the crowd who roundly booed when Smith and Carlos left the platform, or the American sporting establishment who largely ostracised both men when they returned home.
We can celebrate gritty determination or the graceful fluidity of movement that sport can display, and we can even give in to our tribal instincts and rejoice when our guys beat their guys. But none of the appreciation of sport is lost when we stop pretending that professional athletes are much different from you or I. Instead it is the very human qualities we’re so ready to strip from athletes that ennobles their feats. Sport functions as a way to overcome human fallibility, not to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Athletes are role models, billions of marketing dollars guarantee that fact. But no marketing budget can camouflage the reality that athletes are simply primates, just like the rest of us. It’s time we stopped pretending that there is a correlation between athletic prowess and moral fortitude.