Is it a pro athletes responsibility to be a child’s role model?

As scandals involving professional athletes increase in frequency I have started to wonder if sports stars are suitable role models for children. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Michael Vick, Dustin Johnson, Aaron Hernandez, Ben Roethlisberger and Ray Rice to name a few. The aforementioned athletes have been caught cheating using performance enhancing drugs, or have been involved in illegal or immoral activity outside the sports world.

As an avid sports fan, I have grown up not just admiring professional athletes, but idolizing them. To me, professional athletes were perfect in every way and I wanted to emulate their every move. It was not until I was older that I began to understand more about who the athletes really were and the kinds of lives that often come with fame and fortune.

Steven Ortiz, a sociology professor at Oregon State has a theory for why so many gifted athletes are arrogant and self-centered:

“Spoiled-athlete syndrome begins early in sports socialization. From the time they could be picked out of a lineup because of their exceptional athletic ability, they’ve been pampered and catered to by coaches, classmates, teammates, family members and partners. As they get older, this becomes a pattern. Because they’re spoiled, they feel they aren’t accountable for their behaviors off the field. They’re so used to people looking the other way.”

Case in point: The photo to the left is of American swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals (including 18 Gold’s). Phelps is the perfect embodiment of Ortiz’s theory. Along with his marijuana smoking scandal, Phelps has been arrested for multiple DUI’s and alcohol related charges. His consequences included a short-term suspension from swimming, a fine and community service hours. The Phelps case also shows that oftentimes, athletes are let off easy because of their essentialness to their sport.  Phelps was labeled the best swimmer of all time in his early twenties and his behaviour out of the pool is a direct reflection of his arrogance. He is a role model for millions of youth swimmers across the world who hope to one day participate in the Olympic Games. Phelps, along with many other athletes, must begin to take responsibly for their actions and acknowledge their status as role models in society.

The lack of accountability of professional athletes is a controversial topic that can be seen two opposing ways. On one hand, there are those that believe it is a professional athlete’s responsibility and job description to act as a role model. They believe that one of the reasons why a pro athlete is one of the highest paying jobs in the world – because of the duties that come with it.

Those in the opposing field of thought align with Charles Barkley’s point of view (As shown in the video above), where athletes are not figures that children should be emulating. His point is that it is a parents’ obligation and responsibility to be role models for their children.

After widely reading about this topic, I have come to the conclusion that the way an athlete portrays himself or herself to the media, fans, and competition matters. An athlete like Dennis Rodman presented himself as a “bad-boy” – someone who didn’t care about suspensions, fines or the rules. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, was presented as an upstanding citizen who plays one of the most prestigious, well-mannered and conservative sports. Tiger became the face of golf and had to take on all the responsibilities that came with that. It is for this reason why Tiger’s scandal was one of the largest, most shocking in history. He managed to fool his fans, the media and even his family.  The media portrayed him as something he was not, and he lost many supporters as a result.

The above pro athlete scandals can be applied to Heather Reid’s Argument Athletic Competition and Socratic Philosophy. This theory states that athletic competition is not just physical, as “To compete athletically is to struggle for a kind of perfection that encompasses the whole person.” Reid argues that pro athletes are constantly striving to be better and they never settle until they are the best. The success of an athlete is more then just physical perfection; it is about giving back to the community, children and the people who helped get them where they are today. “True athletic agōn, however, like true Socratic philosophy, aims at virtue, human excellence, aretē” (Reid, 2005).

When I was a young boy I was a die-hard Toronto Blue Jays fan. My favourite player was Roger Clemens, nicknamed “The Rocket” for his reputation of having one of the hardest fastballs in the majors. I would go down to the Sky Dome with my grandfather and watch Clemens dominate the opposing batters. He was my hero and I would try as hard as I could to be just like him. Years later, I learned that he was using performance enhancing drugs throughout his career and was now seen as a cheater. This completely changed my perception of him and made me feel as if I was also cheated. My experience is one of many that shows the major impact an athlete can have on a young impressionable child.

The simple answer to my earlier question is yes, pro athletes have a responsibility and even moral duty to act as role models for youth. Every pro athlete have themselves looked up to someone in their sport, emulated their game by them, or even used them as motivation. If an athlete truly cares about the sport they committed their life to, then it is their responsibility to help inspire the next generation of athletes.

Further Reading:

What are your thoughts?

Do you think that it is a pro athletes responsibility to be a child’s role model?

Let me know in the comments below.

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