Scrap the ‘role model’ label

Every week without fail we see incidents of controversy in professional sport. Specifically, those incidents in which the viewing audience questions the integrity of the individuals involved. One of the primary responsibilities of sportsmen and women, we are continually reminded, is to act as ‘role models’, in particular for young children. Yet with alarming persistence our sports people seem to ignore this unwritten rule that they, as high profile and highly paid superstars, are to remain whiter than white.
My statement may seem exaggerated, however over recent months we cannot claim to have been starved of contentious incidents. Liverpool striker Luis Suarez inexplicably sank his teeth into the mortified Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic. Another Chelsea player David Luiz feigned serious injury as a ploy to get opposite number Rafael da Silva sent off. In cricket this Ashes there was the contentious moment surrounding the dismissal of Stuart Broad that never was. His decision not to walk was deemed deplorable and “against the spirit of cricket”. Even in the quiet serenity of the Crucible at this year’s World Snooker Championship eventual winner Ronnie O’Sullivan was at the centre of controversy. Rocket Ronnie was warned by the match referee for making an ‘obscene gesture’ with his cue. Thus proving that even in less suspecting environments sportsmen are capable of falling short of the bar with regards to what many consider to be acceptable behaviour.

What I am arguing is that the whole concept of a ‘role model’ in sport is flawed. It is a subjective label open to scrutiny that often leaves the individual being chastised for character flaws we are all guilty of. This is not a defence of incidents such as that involving Luis Suarez. They are condemnable and similar incidents should never be witnessed on a pitch, field, in a ring, in a swimming pool etc. etc.  With sportsmen however many seem to forget the old adage that no individual is perfect. One minute a sportsman is being cherished as a national treasure, the next they are being vilified and hounded. However, this perhaps merely represents wider issues with the fickle nature of sports media and fans.

But what’s wrong with labeling the likes of Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steve Redgrave et al as ‘role models’, I hear you say? I’d be among the first to recognise the immense achievements of these legends in their respective sports. Furthermore, I think it’s fantastic how these individuals conduct themselves with dignity and express their expert views eloquently in the media, while also in many cases championing worthy charitable causes. These individuals should be appreciated. However, it is unfair that as a result of this, through one moment of indiscretion their achievements could quite easily be thrown back in their face.

This is not to say that sportsmen have no responsibility to behave themselves. Rather, it means that we should only expect of them what we would expect of ourselves.

This leads me back to footballers. They are most at the mercy of falling foul of those individuals who label sportsmen as ‘role models’. They are easy scapegoats after all. At the top level, footballers earn handsome wages for in some instances 2-3 hours worth of training a day. But let’s look at these overpaid men from another angle. These footballers have been dedicated to the sport all their lives, many coming from poverty. I find it uncomfortable defending footballers, who like many individuals I find in most cases to be both tedious and disengaging individuals (ignoring the fact that this writer plays for KCLFC). However, as much as my delusions of grandeur tell me that I could have gone on to be a top class player, I did not. They on the other hand have.

So let’s stop with this rubbish about ‘role models’. It’s lazy and in many cases a sign of abdicating responsibility to those who we ourselves should be guiding, or dare I say, acting as a ‘role model’ for. In the instances highlighted, the individual should be chastised for being down right stupid. However, in promoting the likes of Luis Suarez, John Terry and co. to the rank of ‘role model’, it will always be the labelers that end up looking ridiculous.

After all, many sporting greats who many of us idolised as youngsters (Botham, Flintoff, Maradona, Gascoigne, Cantona, the list goes on…) were not necessarily the most respectable of individuals. However they were great sportsmen, and it is this that should be most admired about them.

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