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8th March 2016

Role Models in sport

In light of the Adam Johnson court case, Toby Webb looks into sportspeople and the difficult concept of role models

The revelations coming out of the Adam Johnson trial have been shocking. The footballer is currently undergoing a trial for four counts of underage sexual activity; he has pleaded guilty to two of these counts. The details coming out of the court room paint a sickening picture. One can only hope that the justice system adequately punishes him for his misconduct.

The crimes committed by Johnson stand as a gross abuse of his esteemed position in society, utilising his fame, and subsequent power, to satisfy his perverted desires. He is the stark opposite of a role model. Despite this, the vast majority of sportspeople live reputable lives, aware of their elevated position. Instances such as Johnson’s are infrequent. However, they continue to crop up.

It is generally accepted that sportspeople should be role models in society; there is a greater emphasis on and a greater requirement of sportspeople to live respectably. This greater emphasis results from the intense scrutiny and attention, as well as the position of power and influence, which comes with being a professional in sport. This principle has been heightened in the social media age, where people’s lives can be monitored even more precisely.

Sportspeople are marvelled for their ability; people want to imitate them. As result, their actions outside of sport can also be open to imitation also. Wrongdoings can appear permissible if enacted by someone who has influence over others. All this puts emphasis on top sportspeople being models of reputable living in society.

There is a tension at the centre of the role model debate. I often feel it is forgotten that sportspeople are still people, and that people make mistakes. Not for a minute am I attempting to rationalise actions such as Johnson’s: they are unlawful and wrong. However, the intense scrutiny that sportspeople live under means that even the slightest misdemeanours are elevated to massive heights. For example, the footballer Raheem Sterling was videoed, and then photographed, using the legal high laughing gas last year. This is an activity that many people of Sterling’s age (now 21) engage in. While it is thought there are dangers in using laughing gas, it is not illegal. Sterling was merely participating in something popular with his age group. However, it was perceived that Sterling was not taking his position as a top sportsperson into account. In using laughing gas, he was promoting it; in doing so, he was deemed a bad role model.

I can sympathise with the intense scrutiny that sportspeople live under. However, this sympathy is finite. The modern-day sportsperson will undoubtedly be aware of the demands of the job. They know they will constantly be under the spotlight; they will know that even the smallest transgression will tarnish the perception of them. However, the intense scrutiny sportspeople are subjected to is constraining. I can understand why certain ‘forbidden fruits’ seem very appealing, especially at the young age that many people turn professional these days.

While the majority of sportspeople respect the esteemed position they hold, stories of transgressions continue to crop up. So, how can sporting role models be encouraged? I will focus on two ways in which I think good actions can be inspired.

Initially, the culture in a specific sport can be improved, where players are models of respect and decency. This would promote better action. Rugby Union is renowned for its respectful culture. In rugby, respect towards the referees is paramount. Any abuse or questioning of a referee is punished with a sin bin, or a sending off in extreme scenarios, and the captains of each team are the only players allowed to have significant conversation with them. Moreover, despite the ferocious nature of the sport, in rugby the players have deep respect for each other; it is traditional for each team to clap the opposition off the pitch after each game. This respectful attitude is heavily encouraged at a grassroots level too, meaning that the culture is embedded right through the spectrum of the sport.

Football, on the other hand, is renowned for disrespectful nature. Premier League games are characterised by players surrounding and questioning referees after the making of a decision. The attitude the players have for each other is improving, the multicultural nature of club football meaning that players of the same nationality will often play against each other. However, poor conduct amongst the players is still present.

The problem is that, at a grassroots level, footballers observe this behaviour and replicate it. Disrespect is engrained as the culture of football. The FA have attempted to address the issue: in amateur football, disrespect towards another player often results in a yellow card, and subsequent fine, for the player in question. However, ultimately the culture within the English football pyramid will not improve until the culture in the Premier League does. Rugby has shown the model for success: make the top league reputable then attempt to improve the rest. Amateur players will be more respectful if their favourite players are.

Another way of inspiring sportspeople to be role models is through direct encouragement. For example, the NFL has a yearly award, known as the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, for volunteer/charity work within a player’s community. Through the means of an award, the League encourages all players to commit to charitable and benevolent action in their communities, and in the process be role models. The use of awards to encourage charitable action is definitely something that should be implemented in other sports. The NFL now has a culture where players are driven to do good things in their communities.

Whether they like it or not, sportspeople have a unique requirement to live reputably. This can be as little as getting on with your job and staying out of trouble. While the influx of money and status can distort the moral compass, there are ways in which better role models can be encouraged.

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