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Should Athletes Be Role Models?

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“I'm not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids.”  In the 1993, Charles Barkley issued this controversial statement, which began a debate that remains relevant today. As a kid, I always looked up to Derek Jeter and other top sports stars of teams I liked (although admittedly there were never any true superstars in the New York Franchises besides Jeter). Nevertheless, I, along with most of the students at this school, either used to look up to or still do look up to many famous athletes of the past and present, ranging from Michael Jordan to Roger Federer. We all love to revere sports stars as heroic figures. It’s what we do as fans. But Charles Barkley’s statement raises a few really good questions. First of all, why do we look at athletes in such a heroic light? Second, what should a real role model be like? Should athletes be considered role models?

Even though the debate really picked up when Barkley spoke his mind, the struggle over who we expect athletes to be as people has been going on for a long time. As a society, we tend to adore athletes we like to the point where they can get away with almost anything. The biggest area of concern is what athletes do away from the ball field. In a society where we tell athletes that the public will love them even if they behave inappropriately, you cannot blame them for some of their mishaps. So let us look at examples of what some of our beloved athletes have done that will sort of make you cringe. Ty Cobb, MLB Hall of Famer, once beat up a fan in the year 1912, and the press excused him, blaming the fan for using profound language; one cannot help thinking that this was because Ty Cobb was the most popular baseball player at the time. Dating back all the way to 1887, famous baseball player, Mike “King” Kelly, was an alcoholic. The fans did not care about that: they still cheered him on passionately and revered him as a role model. Not to say you cannot love somebody who is an alcoholic, but they may not be the best role model for children.  

In our time period, however, things have changed. As a society, we tend to look very closely at every move athletes make off the field due to the 24-hour media cycle that exists. This is why many top athletes have been considered role models, until the fans can no longer love them, due to off the field issues. We have seen many top sports icons fall into a scandal and damage their reputation to the point where they are no longer someone who parents want their children looking up to. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and Hulk Hogan all come to mind as stars that we cannot really look at in the same light due to the way their scandals have been either accurately or inaccurately (often up for debate) portrayed in the news. But sometimes in this argument, it is easy to lose sight of why so many people do not want to consider athletes as role models.

Can athletes be irresponsible? Yes. Do athletes sometimes take on the personas of Hollywood stars rather than ball players? Absolutely. Can athletes do anything to prevent their public image from getting ruined by the media due to personal, off-the-field mishaps? Absolutely not. But at the end of the day, if we started hating every athlete who is kind of a jerk behind closed doors, there probably won’t be any heroes left, besides maybe Roger Federer. Nobody seems to be able to hate Roger Federer. Nevertheless, it is not so much about examining what athletes should do; instead, it is about what role models should do.

In order to be role model, one must demonstrate a certain set of values. These values include traits and characteristics such as confidence, leadership, communicating well, and showing respect for others. Many athletes are actually able to demonstrate these qualities, but that is not why they are beloved by every sports crowd. They are cheered for their athletic ability. Children need role models who they can praise for their ability to guide them and teach them. Just because someone can dunk balls or hit home runs doesn’t mean they should be the person that children look up to. Quite simply, the people that are the true role models in our society—the people children should really be looking at—are their parents and teachers. Charles Barkley was spot on when he said that he shouldn’t be raising anybody’s kids. Teachers and parents are the people who are supposed to turn kids into young adults and teach lessons that they will use for a lifetime. Not some professional basketball player. This becomes sort of difficult; from personal experience, I will say that it is way more fun and a whole lot cooler to look up to the athletes than to look up to your teachers. These people actually teach kids everything, and though they are models they aren’t recognized as such.

As a kid, you want to be your favorite athlete. It is somewhat inexplicable, but you just want to be them. A study performed by researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, showed that athletes are the most admired people by children, with 73% of the children saying that they looked up to athletes the most – second only to their parents. 9 out of 10 kids proclaimed that professional athletes have a positive influence on them. Three-fourths of the 1,500 10-17 year olds said that athletes taught them that showing character and sportsmanship are more important than winning. They also say that athletes showed them that success demands hard work and dedication. However, all of these positives are not the only thing that kids take away from following their favorite athletes. In this same survey, 1 in every 5 kids said that by following athletes, they shouldn’t have to worry about consequences for acting inappropriately. Other children said that it is okay to use alcohol and drugs because athletes do it all the time and often get away with it. 74% of the kids surveyed saw it commonplace for athletes to yell at officials, 62% said it was ordinary for players to disrespect and taunt opposing players, 52% said it was normal for players to use illegal or banned substances to improve performance, and 46% said they frequently see athletes take cheap shots against other players on the other teams. Sure, 87% of the kids surveyed said it was not okay to take a cheap shot against an opponent, but if children start seeing athletes continuously taking the cheap shots or taunting the opponent, sooner or later they will start to mirror those same actions. 56% of the kids surveyed said that it is typical to see younger athletes yelling at officials. A percentage of kids taunting and cheap shots are just as common in professional sports as they are in sports between young athletes. If you want to check out the actual survey, the link is here:

So once the issues with having athletes as role models are established, and once we realize our true models in society, one component of this argument becomes clear. It’s become abundantly clear, for all the reasons that have been discussed, that the answer to the question “Should athletes be role models” is “No, of course not; they’re athletes.” However, there’s a part inside all of us that says: “Yes, of course they should be; they’re athletes.” At the end of the day there are hundreds of reasons why athletes shouldn’t be the people that children base themselves on, yet there is only one reason why children do look up to athletes: They can’t help it.

Although at times, we may know too much about athletes and their moral obligations, most of their misconduct, both on and off the field, vanishes once we see them become heroes during a game. The magic of sports is that no matter what happens off the field, there’s a certain type of emotion evoked during the actual game that cannot be ignored. The intensity of professional sports as well as whether or not an athlete can perform under big these intense moments are often enough to make us forget everything else that went on behind the scenes. For example, Kobe Bryant, one of the most intense, gritty, and most importantly successful athletes of all time was involved in a sexual assault case in 2003. Although we may look back at his career with a few very big red flags, what we will remember most about Kobe Bryant will be his 5 championship rings, his historic 81-point game, and all the amazing moments he had in the playoffs. Retired middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis, was involved in a murder trial, and it is still in question today as to whether or not he committed the murder. Again, when people say the name Ray Lewis, although they may cringe remembering his murder trial, people will remember him as a fierce football player and great team leader.

So because people are going to revere athletes regardless of how they behave, do the athletes have a moral obligation to demonstrate appropriate behavior? In an ideal world: no. Nobody should HAVE to act as a role model unless they are a parent or teacher; in fact, I’ve established that athletes really aren’t great role models. The responsibility of athletes is to do their jobs and be productive playing their sports. However, the emphasis on sports in the media today allows everyone to see every move these athletes make. Ideally, setting a good example for everyone should not be the responsibility of an athlete. They shouldn’t necessarily have to focus on setting good examples, yet they are completely aware that everything they do is being followed thousands and thousands of fans. With that in mind, it could very well be argued that athletes should be cognizant of everyone watching them, both on and off the field. At the same time, however, athletes are paid to play, and we, as fans, have made them our role models. So could this really be our responsibility that we have put on them, or is it their job as professionals to set a good example for society? It goes both ways, but the bottom line is, whether or not it is right to expect athletes to act a certain way, they are still going to be evaluated regarding everything they do.

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