Why do we expect athletes to be role models in our culture?


Fair or not, it’s undeniable that athletes are viewed as role models. Elementary and middle school students look up to high school athletes. High school athletes admire college athletes. College athletes desire to be like professional athletes. Fans envy successful athletes.

I don’t know if professional athletes envy anyone, but something tells me that many of the rich and famous wouldn’t mind taking a timeout from public scrutiny.

The fact is that all of us are imperfect. All of us struggle with something—poor decisions, quick temper, inappropriate behavior, addictions, and the list goes on. The difference is that most of our shortcomings aren’t broadcast for others to see.

Were athletes better role models in the past? That’s hard to say, although before ESPN, we weren’t as aware of their shortcomings. Today, their blemishes are shared in print, radio and TV and on the Internet. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re reading the sports pages or the crime report.

It’s puzzling how athletes work so hard to achieve perfection in athletic virtues, but fail so miserably at nonathletic human virtues.

It’s not a valid question to ask, “Should professional athletes be role models?” They have no choice. They are role models.

But don’t sports breed character? Not according to Texas Christian University anthropologist Andrew Miracle and Adelphi University sociologist C. Roger Rees.

In “Lessons of the Locker Room,” they searched the scientific literature for evidence to support the “sports build character” theory—and struck out.

Miracle said, “Generally, involvement in any extracurricular activity is a good thing, but sports are no better than band or chorus. The danger is that the ‘win at any cost’ attitude becomes so significant that the potential positive benefits are overwhelmed…. (Sports) doesn’t do most of the things people claim it does, but it sure is good entertainment.”

The Sports Law Professor Web site suggests that athletes are role models for children, but only for the role of athlete. On the playing field, these role models may display their athletic virtue, but often it doesn’t translate into a character of virtue. If today’s athletes are a reflection of society, be afraid, because it shows how self-centered we’ve become.

Years ago, Hall of Fame baseball player Reggie Jackson said Jose Canseco had the potential to be a great baseball star, but Jose didn’t care about the history of the game. He had little respect for those who had gone before him. From all appearances, what mattered to Jose were fast cars, women and his ego, not necessarily in that order. His career ended prematurely because of his own bad choices.

Why are athletes bad role models? According to WikiAnswers.com, “This answer is quite simple. Athletes aren’t always who they seem to be on TV. On TV, they always look like smiling, happy people who just love to help out people in need and give hugs to little children. In reality, these people are just actors who happen to be good at playing sports.”

Following the recent bizarre shooting death of former pro football player Steve McNair, former left tackle Brad Hopkins said, “Yeah, there’s something to learn. The learning thing is, just because I’m standing here in front of this camera doesn’t make me any different from you.

“And the unfortunate thing is that’s the way people think. People think because a guy makes a movie, because he scores a touchdown or shoots a basket, somehow they’re different than we are. Well, they’re not.”

Talking about athletes and role models, Larry Elder wrote that because of the type of person and attitude required to succeed in sports—especially violent sports like football — make athletes, almost by definition, a tough sell as role models.

Sports psychologist Julian Morrow says, “What makes a player successful on the field — anger, risk-taking, limited impulse control—may not make him someone you want living next door.”

Former Yankee great Mickey Mantle once said, “This is a role model: Don’t be like me.”

Elder writes, “A true role model remains someone you know and who cares about you. This means parents, relatives, friends, members of the clergy—people whose character you know, trust and respect.”

Or, as Robert Fulghum has said, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you. Worry that they are always watching you.”


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