22 October 2016

Unfair Expectations: Exploring the ‘Role Model’ Tag Ascribed to Athlete

Daniel Gallan

Long before sport turned professional, elite athletes have acted as ambassadors for the societies they represent. As such, they have been labelled as role models and moral compasses whether or not they are deserving of those titles. But is this fair? Do we as the public hold our athletes to impossible standards not reserved for any other industry? How does being a role model impact performance and is the status even worth pursuing? CONQA Sport answers these questions and more. 

Floyd Mayweather, arguably the best pound for pound boxer of all time, was one of the hardest working athletes. He constantly set an example for aspiring boxers. However, his behaviour and demeanour outside of the ring and gym was often distasteful. He is a prime example of how an athlete can be a role model in his craft but not as a character.  Image supplied by Action Images / Jim Young.

Floyd Mayweather, arguably the best pound for pound boxer of all time, was one of the hardest working athletes. He constantly set an example for aspiring boxers. However, his behaviour and demeanour outside of the ring and gym was often distasteful. He is a prime example of how an athlete can be a role model in his craft but not as a character. Image supplied by Action Images / Jim Young.

While the New Zealand All Blacks celebrated their record breaking 18th consecutive Test victory by beating Australia 37-10 at Eden Park in Auckland this weekend, one man was conspicuous by his absence. You wouldn’t have known it, such was the one sided score line in the end, but one of the best players in the world played no part in this historic achievement.

Aaron Smith, undoubtedly the best scrumhalf on the planet, voluntarily made himself unavailable following a disciplinary hearing in which he was asked to explain his actions involving a sex scandal that, in the words of New Zealand Rugby’s General Manager, Neil Sorensen, amounted to “serious misconduct”.

Last month, while waiting with his teammates to board a plane to South Africa, Smith engaged in a brief tryst with a woman at Christchurch Airport. A married couple noticed the two enter a disabled toilet cubicle where they heard “rhythmic tapping noises”. The husband then pulled out his phone and filmed Smith and the woman leave the cubicle before Smith, in official All Black clothing, joined his teammates as if nothing had happened.

Despite initial plans to keep the information to themselves, the couple reported the incident. “I’ve never reported anything to a newspaper or anything,” the wife said. “We don’t want to convey the fact that we’re narking or gossiping about his private life. However, the All Blacks are put on a pedestal and are role models for young Kiwis.”

She then went on to add, “As such, they should be held to a higher level of scrutiny. Most people would not do that, let alone a public figure.”

These sentiments raise a number of concerns. Firstly, to suggest that Smith’s actions are beyond “most people” is absurd. Public sex and adultery are obviously regularly occurring phenomenon and millions of people around the world who are not “public figures” cheat on their partners and/or do so in public spaces. That is not to say that cheating is justifiable, simply that it is unfortunately not rare.

Secondly, the notion that the married couple felt they had a right to “nark” on Smith by virtue of the fact that he is an All Black – arguably the highest position of honour a New Zealand man can achieve – leads us down a moral and ethical quandary. If this was any other pair that the married couple happened upon, it is hard to imagine that they would have made the footage public. In some way they felt they had a moral obligation to society to expose Smith and make an example of him for the collective good.

But was this fair? Elite athletes are no doubt placed on pedestals, and it doesn’t get any more elite than an All Black, but surely they are placed there first and foremost as a result of their athletic prowess. Apart from cases where athletes have broken the law such as Oscar Pistorius or OJ Simpson, or have blatantly cheated like Lance Armstrong or Maria Sharapova, should our moral perceptions of athletes not be confined to what they do on the field?

For Mike McInerney, a sports psychologist and co-director of Headstrong, a sports psychology and performance organisation operating out of Cape Town, we ascribe the tag of ‘role model’ to our athletes and feel invested in their actions as a result of a sense of ownership. He believes that this ties in with the post-modern amalgamation of the roles of athlete and celebrity and argues that by virtue of them operating in the public’s eye, we feel empowered to claim ownership over their image and, by extension, their actions.

“Athletes are demanded not just to produce on the field, but perform a certain role off it,” McInerney says. “Our athletes represent the ideals that are valued in society and all too often we are idealistic in terms of what we expect from them.”

On the rugby field while playing scrumhalf, Aaron Smith is peerless. However, his latest scandal, involving a woman in a bathroom cubicle at Christchurch Airport, has meant that he has lost his place in the All Black squad. 

On the rugby field while playing scrumhalf, Aaron Smith is peerless. However, his latest scandal, involving a woman in a bathroom cubicle at Christchurch Airport, has meant that he has lost his place in the All Black squad. 

Smith is 27 years old, at his peak physically and enjoys a level of fame few of us will ever come close to experiencing. Is it that inconceivable that he made this poor error in judgement? Let he who knows what it’s like to be a superstar All Black cast the first stone.

But athletes are not the only figures who perform in full view of the public and yet society holds them to a standard not reserved for any other industry. Politicians are in the public eye and yet their after-hour endeavours seem to have less impact on their job security than that of sports stars. Oftentimes, even if politicians are found to have operated poorly at their job they still manage to hold on to their position.

South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, won over 60% of the vote in the 2014 national elections despite a laundry list of corruption allegations. Donald Trump, the United States presidential hopeful, somehow still has a chance of winning the keys to the Oval Office despite a slew of reprehensible comments aimed at women and minorities.

Film stars, musicians, socialites; in the world of Dan Bilzerian and Kim Kardashian, where people can become famous for twerking on Twitter, it seems lofty ethical standards and expectations are reserved for athletes. Why?

According to Dr Gill Lines in a paper titled, Villains, fools or heroes? Sports stars as role models for young people (2001), she states that the “sporting hero has traditionally been perceived as epitomizing social ideas… and as embodying values which learnt on the playing fields will readily transfer into everyday life”.

This is the enduring myth of the ‘Amateur Gentleman’ and ‘Muscular Christian’ of the Victorian era that was brought up in the English public school system and educated in the arts of conduct and chivalry on the sports field. Values such as honour, hard work, respect for the game and fair play are still valued today, but the characteristics of the performing athletes have shifted dramatically with a rapidly changing world.

We don’t live our lives according to 19th century standards - certainly the post-modern celebrity does not. However, as Lines states, “such lingering values of sporting heroes continue suggesting sports stars should maintain traditional social standards both on and off the pitch.”

That is why the married couple felt emboldened to expose Smith. It was not that they necessarily believed that what Smith did was wrong, but within the context of him being an All Black, and especially while wearing the Silver Fern on his chest, they felt they had a duty as red blooded Kiwis to out this villain.

As Lines says, “If elite sportsman can no longer embody this [our ideal values], then legitimation of such values come under threat”. Looking at ourselves in the mirror is a lot harder than trying to see athletes as the flawed humans they are. We hold to the notion that if they display their humanity in a way that upsets us, it is them who must toe the line rather than we who must change our viewpoint.

It’s crucial to note that the values that we expect our athletes to uphold will vary depending on the society they represent. Tim Tebow, currently an outfielder with the New York Mets and previously an NFL quarterback, embodies the wholesome Christian image that the southern states of the US cherish. The son of Baptist missionaries, Tebow became famous for praying on one knee before, during and after football matches. He has even been caught on film allegedly reviving a man suffering from a seizure with nothing but the power of prayer.

Compare this image to the hyper-masculine, beer guzzling Australian cricketer of the 1980s. These true blue Aussie blokes, with open collars and facial hair, epitomised the bombastic culture of their country. Even when elite sport realised that downing several cold ones a night might negatively impact performance, the same braggadocio mindset persisted.

However, as we have seen with San Francisco 49ers quarterback,  Colin Kaepernick taking a stand against police brutality on African American citizens, polarised opinions can still exist within the same society.

“Athletes are beholden to sponsors to represent their brand but we are also stakeholders and we want our athletes to represent us,” McInerney says. “The character traits of the athletes, the methods used to take a stand and the issues they take a stand against will differ from society to society, and from person to person, but the demand to meet those expectations will be just as strong no matter the context.”

This also applies from sport to sport. If an Australian Rules footballer acts like a hot head and swears at an opponent, his actions are easily dismissed as a part of the game. However, when Australian tennis star, Nick Kyrgios insults Stan Wawrinka’s girlfriend on the court, that is universally unacceptable.

Certain sports like tennis and golf, and to a lessening extent, cricket, still carry an air of the old world. That is why the brother of Danny Willet, the English golfer who represented Europe in the recent Ryder Cup, described US golf fans as the “angry, unwashed Make America Great Again swarm” in reference to their lude and overtly antagonistic behaviour.

The Willets grew up in Sheffield, a South Yorkshire city famous for its steel production and football teams. If the Willets ever attended a Wednesday-United derby, there is no doubt that he would have heard vulgar language from sports fans. In football it’s acceptable. In other sports it’s just not cricket.

Nick Kyrgios, despite obvious star quality, has not endeared himself to the majority of tennis fans due to his volatile, and often offensive, demeanour. 

Nick Kyrgios, despite obvious star quality, has not endeared himself to the majority of tennis fans due to his volatile, and often offensive, demeanour. 

These extra pressures to perform a role both on and off the field can have obvious negative implications. Anything that shifts focus away from performance has the potential to negatively impact how you perform but if used correctly, the role model tag can be used to improve performance.

We’ve already spoken about how Grant Lottering uses the knowledge that he was raising money for charity to help him achieve the monumental feat of cycling close to 1000km over 48 hours in the Alps. The same has been said about Team Dimension Data riders in the Tour de France.

The Connect Sports Academy is a sports development programme from the Khayelitsha Township in the Western Cape, South Africa and is committed to transform the sporting landscape in the country. At the coalface of one of South Africa’s most important issues, this organisation helps young children from disadvantaged backgrounds and provides them with a holistic set of skills to make it in the sports world.  After just two full seasons, several young players have been selected to represent their province.

Murray Ingram is the development strategist at Connect and explains how being a role model helps improve on field play. “A lot of the kids come from backgrounds and communities that are affected by the perils of alcohol, abuse, drugs and gangs,” Ingram says. “We tell the youngsters that they are pioneers and that they are playing for more than just their own careers. It’s not just athletic responsibilities that they have but also moral and social responsibilities. This drives them to raise their performances on match day and in training sessions.”

Ingram goes on, “We have to remember that they are kids and they will make mistakes. But we’ve found that some of the children that came to us with severe behavioural problems as a result of their background are the ones that are now leaders. They are the ones who understand what’s at stake. I think being a role model means knowing that you are in a position of privilege and that your standing can impact the lives of others.”

So are athletes then obligated to be role models? Floyd Mayweather is arguably the greatest pound for pound boxer of all time with a record of 49-0 with 26 knockouts. He was a tireless professional who worked extremely hard at his craft and yet his demeanour outside of the ring was borderline distasteful. Throw in the fact that he is a serial domestic abuser and you have the perfect example of a dichotomous figure who was the consummate professional but a deplorable character.

For McInerney, an athlete should only ever seek to be a role model if the tag fits in with his or her values. “Motivation is closely linked to what a person’s values are,” he says. “People are less likely to be motivated if their values don’t align with what they’re doing.”

Integrity is closely linked with honesty and an athlete that presents one image but then acts in a contradictory manner is more likely to lose our respect than an athlete that is upfront with their reluctance to assume the position of a role model. This is why when Hansie Cronje, the former South African cricket captain, was exposed as a match fixer, it hit the country hard. It went against the wholesome, golden boy image he had projected.

Contrast the case of Charles Barkley, the former NBA star, who proudly stated, “I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Barkley said that in a Nike advert, the same Nike that cut Tiger Wood’s annual endorsement in half as punishment for having an extra-marital affair. In the commercial realm, much like the wider sporting landscape, integrity and honesty are valued even if the root attributes of the athlete are not necessarily righteous.

There is no escaping the fact that sports stars are held to a higher standard than the average person. However, despite our idealism, the majority of athletes, like the majority of all people, are unworthy of the role model tag. We as the public need to be far more selective with regards to who we look up to. In this way, we will be able to see our athletes as the flawed humans they are, and they in turn will be able to focus their attention where it matters - on the field of play.