The problems with athletes as role models

by YES! Staff

By Alex Ashe

In 1993, Nike released a nowiconic advertisement which featured then-pro basketball player Charles Barkley declaring, “I am not a role model.” The ad is so relevant today that its tagline could probably replace the increasingly ambiguous “Just Do It” as Nike’s slogan.

Nike cut ties with cyclist Lance Armstrong immediately after it became clear that he was using performance enhancing drugs during the prime of his career. It proved to be a smart move, as his lying, wrongful-defamation suits and attempted justification of the doping have overshadowed his cheating. Along with his titles, sponsorships and dignity, Armstrong lost the support of millions of Americans, many of whom were wearing his Livestrong bracelets just a few months ago.

One of the most inspirational stories of 2012, sprinter Oscar Pistorius made history by becoming the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics last August. Just six months later, he has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The investigation is ongoing as Pistorius awaits his trial but nonetheless, a very dark cloud surrounds the inspirational “blade runner.” Nike certainly regrets marketing Pistorius as “the bullet in the chamber,” recently pulling the ads and suspending its contract with the sprinter.

Tiger Woods’ fall from grace is a frontrunner for the biggest sports story of the young millennium. The revelations of the golfer’s many extramarital affairs turned his world upside down in an instant. By destroying his family life, Woods immediately went from the being one of the most marketable athletes of all-time to a pariah. The most shocking part about the scandal was that, apart from the occasional angry club slam, Woods had cultivated an immaculate reputation since his breakthrough in the ’90s. He was responsible for popularizing golf for both the African-American community and an entire generation of young people worldwide. Woods has been a mere mortal on the golf course since the scandal, with the legend of his descent growing with every major that he fails to win.

The list of accomplished athletes with tarnished pasts can go on and on, from Super Bowl champion Ray Lewis to home-run king Barry Bonds to 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

It’s perfectly fine to look up to star athletes for their performances on the field, but we need to readjust our expectations of how athletes should act once the final whistle is blown.

By casting pro athletes as role models, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, as there seems to be an increasing trend of inspirational sports stories being revealed as too good to be true.

Ever since the emergence of decade-long contracts and lucrative endorsement deals (worth amounts many people can’t even comprehend), pro athletes have never been less relatable to the average citizen.

Many athletes have gotten to where they are with little to no emphasis on academics. Many MLB and NBA players have forgone higher education. With the NBA now requiring players to spend a minimum of one year in college, academics are just a front for some players. During the recent Duke-UNC showdown, commentator Dick Vitale described the rule as “a mockery of the academic system.”

By living lives rooted in both privilege and stress, it’s difficult for professional athletes to maintain squeaky-clean images. With the non-stop media coverage, it’s even harder for them to get away with their mistakes.

Who, then, should kids view as role models?

It’s extremely ironic that so many sports stars turn out to be false idols when perhaps the most genuine and charitable athlete comes from a business often dismissed as “fake.”

Pro wrestling is practically a soap opera starring live-action superheroes and super-villains. Characters, storylines and matches are presented with great amounts of silliness, melodrama and hyperbole. In rare instances, however, pro wrestling writers incorporate bits of truth and reality into the product, as is the case with the WWE’s John Cena, who by all accounts, is a superhero outside of the ring.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation’s alltime leader in wishes granted, Cena has granted more than 300 wishes, and hopes to eventually make it to 1,000. As the foundation’s most requested wishgranter, Cena has been placed in the role model position for numerous American children. What’s refreshing is that he’s actually suited for the responsibility of being a positive influence.

In an industry infamous for steroids, steel-chair shots and stunts gone awry, Cena is a beacon of positivity. A champion of “hustle, loyalty and respect,” he’s served as the face of WWE during its transformation into family-friendly entertainment. Since his 2002 debut, Cena has never played the role of the antagonist, meaning that he is often written to overcome adversity, corruption and unlawfulness, all to show that good things happen to good people.

It’s for these exact reasons that Cena draws ire from the more seasoned wrestling fans, but instead of a squeaky-clean role model, they tend to look for an heir apparent to edgy characters like Stone Cold Steve Austin or the Rock. But then again, there’s a reason why we don’t rely on bloodthirsty wrestling fans to determine our role models.

If kids are going to have role models in sports settings, they should be their coaches or someone close who can directly teach them the difference between right and wrong.

Perhaps Sir Charles said it best back in 1993.

“Parents should be role models.”