Jerry Collins was a very reluctant role model. He, like many others, didn’t particularly like the idea of being hobbled with that solemn duty and he, like many others, had some difficulty living up to that duty.
Yet, for all his human frailties Collins was about as good an example of a caring human being you could ask for.
He wasn’t like that because of some formally imposed responsibility that came with being a great All Black. He was like that because of his particular personality, and it is because of his exceptionally generous personality that he will be so fondly remembered.
In spite of that, almost every media report following his tragic death parroted the same tired cliché that Jerry was a role model for anyone and everyone who has aspirations of doing something big in sport or life itself.
That notion is as absurd as declaring that Winston Churchill was a role model for anyone with political aspirations or Roman Polanski was a role model for those with ambitions in the movie business.
Why has the idea of role models become so ridiculously entrenched in the public mind? There’s no doubt that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, possibly the result of an obsession with the idea of self improvement and every individual needing stimulus to become ‘the best they can be’.
It is also the product of all that new-fangled management speak that is so characteristic of the human resources industry; management speak that demands we model ourselves on leadership imagery and examples in order to succeed.
All this stuff has translated itself into the sports world, and as a consequence top sportsmen and women are automatically adorned with the status of role model.
This is a mistake.
Governing bodies seek to portray to the world an image that the sport they manage is an upright activity worthy of our admiration, our following and of course our dollars.
Almost every sports governing body is fanatically devoted to this imagery. That is why they act with such pious righteousness whenever a player blots that collective copybook.
Take the case of Manu Tuilagi, who was sanctimoniously excised from the England Rugby World Cup squad for belting a taxi driver and other misdemeanours. The message delivered was that he was no longer a model role model and therefore had to be axed completely.
Yet, if England had taken the approach of other countries in recent times and simply asked the player to apologise and then reintegrate him back into the squad, the result would have been more meaningful.
It is utterly useless having a zero-tolerance approach to role modelling, because sportsmen are as seriously flawed as the rest of us. Given the pressures so many of them are under, those flaws are even more likely to become apparent. And they do. And all hell breaks loose.
When I was a player back in the 1960s the term ‘role model’ didn’t exist. We constituted a cross section of society and behaved accordingly; often very badly. What we represented on the field had nothing to do with what we did off it.
Why then do we now insist that every top player should carry this ridiculous burden? The answer lies in the sport’s own self image and the related impact this has on sponsorship income.
No modern player is able to express anything more than the most innocuous banality. He is scripted and rigorously censored from the moment he is inducted into the top order. Opinions are taboo. Participation as a citizen is carefully curtailed.
Increasingly, the player is becoming the compliant, unquestioning creature of the enterprise; and the commercial sponsor. In other words a creature in chains.
Is that really the kind of role model we want for our youngsters? No thanks.