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Athletes as Role Models

Yesterday I saw a commercial that said something like "to those of you who say that athletes shouldn't be role models, may we suggest that perhaps you're looking at the wrong athletes?" The voice spoke over images of Olympic swimmers, gymnasts, and other world class athletes and competitors.

While I've always believed that a child's parents should be their first, strongest, and most important role models, I also believe that children won't appreciate their parents until they've left home and set out on their own. During the teen years, who do they look to for role models? Religious individuals, community leaders, and the like are fine. Schoolteachers are admired by many. But many kids look beyond the homegrown - they're aspiring to make something of their lives, after all.

Once we look to this realm of "famous" people, what choices have kids got? Athletes. Models. Actors. Musicians. Industry leaders, scientists, and politicians don't seem to inspire kids much, so they're easy to omit. Each of those groups has its "bad seeds," but because maintaining a famous position as an athlete is difficult while abusing your body and living poorly, athletes seem to be some of the cleaner living folks in that crowd.

As a kid who was never very popular, sports emphasized performance over appearance. I drew inspiration from the work ethic of Tom Kite, for example, and when I was younger researched and read all I could about the legends of baseball and soccer. I dare you to find better role models than Pelé or Roberto Clemente! Those who might not be athletically gifted can still admire, watch, follow, and learn about their heroes just as many of us - who cannot sing or paint - can admire the skills of Mozart and Monet.

In sports, far more so than in modeling, acting, or pop music today, performance is what matters. Competition is not a popularity contest - you make the shot or you don't, and not too many people care whether your hair is perfect or you've got a great ass. That "sex sells" in sport too is not to contradict that athletes are good role models, but only to show that parents have a difficult time in guiding their children through their earlier years. People care more about Anna Kournikova as a model than an athlete: she didn't achieve a whole lot in tennis, but she sure looks good in a bikini.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to "be like Mike." There's nothing wrong with finding "the Tiger in you." Athletics teaches valuable life lessons: competition, practice, the pursuit of goals, achievement, respect.

It's true that there are bad role models in the rank and file of major national athletics: spoiled tennis brats, pimped up football jackasses, and so on. I don't identify with those people, and they're not role models. Like the ad suggested, perhaps you're looking at the wrong athletes. One of Tiger Woods' legacies may or may not be surpassing Jack Nicklaus' records, but another of them most certainly will be the role he's played as a sports star in the lives of thousands - millions - of lives.

Athletes as role models? Besides family and community members, whom would you rather your kids look up to more? I can't think of anyone.

12 Responses to "Athletes as Role Models"

  1. Admiration?

    I was reading Eric's blog, which in its self is somewhat unusual because I disagree with seemingly most of his opinions - but I think that's part of what I go back for. Anyways, I was reading his blog and began reading his entry on "Athletes as Rol...

  2. Jesus? 🙂 And yes, I'm being serious.

    Interesting article Erik. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. It's a good question. Achievement seems to be a deeply embedded ideal in American culture. Growing up, I sure remember the encouragement (and pressure) to dream and work hard to "be number one". If you can dream it, you can do it. When I was 17, I behaved as if the most important thing in life was to win the varsity basketball state championship. Stopping to smell the roses was being "lazy". And college was all about grade point averages, bell curves and ratings � pressure to be the best.

    20 years later, I look back and think, "How did our priorities get so screwed up?" One can miss out on a lot of life being on the path to achievement.

    Rather than pointing them towards role models and emphasizing achievement, I hope to encourage my kids to simply find and participate in things that make them happy, build and enjoy friendships, work hard at what they do (because I do believe that one does find satisfaction in that) � but not to worry at all about being like someone else, or being number one.

    Jared interestingly mentions Jesus. That's something else I think a lot about (especially now that I have kids.) Finding one own's religious beliefs is such a complex and personal matter, and which ultimately, I think, boils down to faith, that sometimes it seems almost arrogant for a parent to feel so certain in their understanding of "the truth" as to use their natural position (as a parent) to strongly direct their children. I don't know � it seems like a super delicate issue to handle correctly. (I don't think this is what Jared is necessarily suggesting; it's just the mention of Jesus got me thinking...)

  4. Achievement

    Erik asks about athletes as role models, and I responded with my thoughts.

  5. Clearly, Matt, admiring an athlete as a role model is only that, and you know this. I wasn't suggesting that kids should model every aspect of their lives after athletes and seek only achievement, ignoring family, friends, and "the roses" along the way. It's rather silly of you to suggest, by your response, that that's what I've said.

    A role model serves a relatively small role in a child's life, but I believe that it's still an important one. Of the possible choices today's child has before him, well, an athlete to me seems to be a rather sound one.

  6. Erik, my comments were addressing just the issue you raised, not your opinion. Admiration is one thing, but I don't like the idea of encouraging kids to have role models. I'm not sure it's easy to control the importance a child ends up internalizing about the need to be like that model.

  7. Whenever I hear about the athletes as role models discussion all i hear is how kids should look up to parents or local members of the community or even clergy. Sometimes all kids have is sports, who do you think a child would look up to more the beered up dad that comes home and hits him or the athlete that goes out works hard and wins the game with a walk off homer. Athletes only get brought up when there are sex charges or if they are arrested for possession but this is a small part of the athletic community. I wonder what the comparison is between crimes in proffessional sports and those outside of it such as domestic abuse or assault. If looking up to Athletes are the only bright spot in a childs life why should we take that from them?

  8. you guys are all stupid. girls need a role model to look after or they go down the path of a drug atic, alcoholic, or pregnant teen. sports keep them out of trouble most of the time

    1. no you are stupid for asssuming that every girl would become a stereotype. you should be disgusted with yourself

  9. Loved your article, I'm currently working on a debate topic about sports with a grade 5 class and enjoyed what you had to say..thanks

  10. i really like your article alot...it really helped me in my physical education project...I plagariszed every single word you typed and said it was my own...thanks...

  11. i'm kidding... lol....but i did love your article...


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