I Am Not a Role Model: Do Professional Athletes Have a Say in the Matter?

We all need heroes: people who inspire us, people we seek to emulate, and those who make us strive to better ourselves. Otherwise referred to as ‘role models’, they encourage us to reach our full potential, and can be found in many places. Research suggests that we all should have role models. In school, we look up to our teachers; at home, we look up to our parents; in the workplace, we look up to our bosses. In a sports-mad country like Australia, it’s only natural that we also look up to professional athletes. Unfortunately, many of our sporting heroes often do not behave in a manner befitting of the high regard in which they are held. We look up to them as role models, however, for young impressionable minds, they are not always the positive influence we would hope for.

In psychological terms, being guided by role models is called ‘learning by imitation’; and is an essential component of the socialisation process. By imitating others, individuals are able to acquire complex behavioural patterns, learning appropriate ways of behaving in various situations, and adapting to changing conditions. It makes sense that children are drawn towards professional athletes. Everywhere we look, we’re encountered by them; we watch their heroic feats on television, see their toned physiques modelling designer clothes, and on the rare occasion, for better or for worse, hear them making forays into the music business. To many, sport is a religion, and the top players are worshipped as gods. In the book Challenging Macho Values, Salisbury and Jackson suggest:

‘Both on the television and the football terrace, sport offers boys’ images, models and fantasies of what it is to be a ‘proper’ man today.’

Ignoring the sexist undertones of that statement, it is questionable whether modern sports stars can be seen as heroic in the same sense as athletes of yesteryear, when they were admired not only for their exemplary sporting behaviour, but also their high morals. In today’s social media-centric world, we are constantly rocked by scandals involving sports stars; from drunken brawls and illicit drug use, to infidelity. There is not much that stays out of the public eye. It begs the question: Are these really people we should be looking up to?

In 1993, American basketball star Charles Barkley starred in a Nike commercial in which he renounced his position as a role model, stating: “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court”. Many took issue with this, believing that whether they like it or not, athletes are looked up to and imitated by children. This belief is one that I personally would tend to agree with. A helpful comparison comes from the academic world, and the relationship between teachers and their students. In How We Think, psychologist John Dewey opined that “the influence of the teacher’s personality is intimately fused with that of the subject”; and further added that “the [student] does not separate or even distinguish the two”. This view supports the ‘learning by imitation’ theory. In the course of learning, we naturally seek to replicate traits and characteristics shown by those whose successes we hope to follow.

Unfortunately, the young, impressionable minds of children often fail to distinguish between the right and wrong actions of their sporting heroes. If they see rugby league superstars like Billy Slater or Johnathan Thurston doing something, how could it be wrong? Professor Eva Johansson, from the University of Guthenberg in Sweden, concludes that children are unable to make objective moral judgements until the age of eight. Up until this time, what is deemed to be ‘good’ from the perspective of a child, is simply to show obedience and follow rules imposed by adults. As many children engage in sport or sport viewing from as young as five, it stands to reason that they will seek to follow the examples set by adults, both good and bad.

In my own personal experience playing junior sport, I have seen the behaviours of professional athletes replicated by children. From the harmless fun of imitating your favourite player’s celebrations, to the inexcusable act of abusing referees, the impact of negative behaviours from professional sports stars is far-reaching, and should concern us greatly. While Charles Barkley may tell you that children should look up to their parents instead of people like him, the reality is that they will always look up to sports stars. As such, professional athletes have a duty to conduct themselves with dignity and professionalism both in and out of the sporting arena. Consequently, sporting organisations have sought to sanitise some of the more unsavoury aspects of professional games. For example, the National Rugby League (NRL) in 2013 introduced an automatic 10 minutes in the sin bin for players who engage in fighting during matches. While the reaction to this news was not overwhelmingly positive, it has been enforced in an effort to provide fans with positive messages when watching the games they love.

Turning towards Australian cricket, most will be familiar with the infamous ball tampering incident that occurred earlier this year. It resulted in the twelve-month suspensions of Australia’s captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner, as well as the nine-month ban of rookie Cameron Bancroft for their roles in the cheating scandal. The incident rocked Australian sport to its core, and was made worse by the fact that it was masterminded by two of Australia’s cricket leaders, who are looked up to by thousands of children across the country. While the true fallout of this incident is not known, it is frightening to think of the young children who could one day replicate that kind of behaviour.

Regardless of whether or not an athlete wants to be a role model, their celebrity sporting status places them in a position of being one. As such, their influence can be far-reaching, particularly on younger children who are unable to disassociate poor behavior from their sporting heroes. Sports stars need to be made aware of the responsibilities they have, and should be held to the highest possible standard. Charles Barkley might not have been paid to be a role model, but he has a duty to act like one. Children must be aware of boundaries, and fans of all ages should be given the opportunity to enjoy watching professional sport and take positive messages from it. Sporting heroes beware – there are young eyes upon you. You have a civic duty to set a positive example.

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