Athletes as Role Models Why They Fail

Many designated role models fail when it’s their turn at bat. A great number of quality individuals make their living as professional athletes. How do you pick out the good individuals from the good athletes?

Over the years, the United Way, in partnership with the NFL, has introduced us to hundreds of football players who are involved in charity work. Do you remember many of their names? Plenty of local baseball players donate money to a favorite cause after they hit home runs. Do you know who they are?

If we truly wanted to promote athletes as good role models, the media and the advertisers wouldn’t spend so much time and money on the athletes who are not good role models. Millions of dollars are spent promoting athletes who exhibit mature, gracious and responsible behavior. But there also is a significant amount spent glorifying athletes of questionable character.

Which athletes do the newspapers quote most often? Which ones do the announcers and commentators talk about and joke with during live broadcasts and taped interviews? Frequently, they are the same athletes who exhibit the most outrageous, arrogant and crude behavior in the public arena. Many of these athletes don’t pretend to be role models. They favor whining and fighting over good sportsmanship.

After speaking to an audience, I usually answer questions. Invariably, people ask about athletes as role models. I tell them it’s a nice idea but not always a sensible one. Living under the microscope of today’s media, even the best-loved athlete is capable of revealing a character flaw.

To their credit, many athletes are honest enough to say that they should not be looked upon as role models. Of course, their wishes mean little. Being public figures, their lifestyles are constantly scrutinized. It is up to them to choose what kind of role model they should be, but they are role models, regardless.

Some athletes wonder why they are singled out among celebrities to wear this mantle. Parents don’t expect young rock musicians and movie stars to act as role models for their children.

What is it about athletes that cause us to separate them from other groups of celebrities with regard to their usefulness as role models?

The reason athletes have been put up as role models is because of the power of mythology. The world of sport is steeped in legend, and people throughout time have found it difficult to let go of their cultural mythology. The media has never sugarcoated the truth about the music world. The media linked musicians and artists with counterculture behavior before we even knew what the word meant.

And our society has always had a fascination with Hollywood. We never wanted actors and actresses to be role models. We expected them not to behave but to titillate.

The mythology of sport was never seriously challenged until Jim Bouton wrote “Ball Four” in the early ’70s. Remember the public reaction? Bouton was vilified. However, his book sold like hotcakes. Many people were outraged. Others, I’m sure, were secretly pleased to find out that these guys were just like them.

For a variety of reasons, sports writers have conspired to keep the truth about professional athletes away from the public. Is this a good idea?

Is purposeful distortion of the truth warranted when it results in millions of young people being positively influenced? Do the ends justify the means?

As parents, what should you say to your kids about professional athletes?

Never put an athlete up on a pedestal. The farther the fall, the more disappointment for the child. Separate the athlete’s ability from his behavior.

Teach your kids that real role models are usually the ones they never hear much about: The disciplined and mature players who don’t need the spotlight and the individuals who care more for family than fame.

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