By Iacovos Iacovides, APC Sports Consulting Ltd
Growing up we all need our role models, heroes and idols that inspire us to dream and mumble: “One day I will be like them”. It is healthy and desirable not just for young athletes, but also kids in general who will not pursue or even try to pursue a professional career in their favorite sport to have role models beyond the household. People often underestimate the impact that an athlete can have on a child’s psyche, mentality and, determination and perseverance levels because they fail to realize that the beauty of being young is that your dreams are immune to reality and indifferent to statistics. On the other hand, there is a dark side to having athletes as role models. Match fixing, extravagance, substance abuse, performance enhancing drugs and heavy partying are just a few of the unsavory and morally questionable choices that some athletes make.
A lot of athletes left extraordinary legacies behind them in terms of inspiring performances but also of charity and activism. People like Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams, Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James have done—and are doing— remarkable things both inside and outside the pitch. There are several and often intertwined reasons as to why we “settle” on our favorite athletes. Sometimes it is because we can relate to them whether in terms of appearance, height and size, or in terms of background, as a lot of them come from underprivileged backgrounds, and therefore give us hope that we too can be like them.
Moreover, we tend to and should, look to athletes for things beyond sports, for imitating and developing certain qualities that we see in the pitch such as emotional behavior, sportsmanship and fair play. Last but not least, athletes can motivate children vis-à-vis their athletic activities; specifically, how they inspire them to train harder, to sign up to their local team, to try and emulate their favorite athletes’ performances. This should not be undervalued because kids due to their nature, get bored easily and jump from activity to activity especially in the face of difficulties, so having a role model is like a pillar, an anchor that keeps them motivated and gives them a sense of dedication. There are also several studies which suggest that having athletes as role models has a positive correlation with higher levels of confidence.
There is a second dimension to being a role model-athlete, a much more important one which is how athletes behave outside the field, by setting the right examples through action and social engagement. One of the most recent examples is Marcus Rashford and his proactive attitude during the pandemic. The Man United star during the lockdown in the UK not only provided meals to millions of children but also applied political pressure on the Johnson administration and eventually forced the government to keep the free school meals program alive.
There are also the athletes who become activists and address certain social issues such as racism, homophobia and sexism. From Kathrine Switzer who defied every roadblock and human obstacle she encountered to become the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967 to Megan Rapinoe today who fights for LGBTQ rights, equal pay and equal working conditions for women, athletes have always been at the forefront for social change and progress. Through all these, young children learn how to behave, how to tell right from wrong, the importance of community spirit and how to become valuable members of society.
However, there is always the danger of a young child looking up to the wrong people; Lance Armstrong, Arturo Vidal, Tiger Woods, Oscar Pistorius and countless others. Between them these men have a rich history of extramarital affairs, doping, heavy drinking and even homicide. Recently two scandals broke out in the UK involving world-class footballers. During the national lockdown, Kyle Walker flew two call girls to the UK according to British media, who left on the day that the England national uploaded on social media a video clip encouraging people to “stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”.
Just two months earlier a great portion of the Manchester City squad flew 22 Instagram models to Cheshire at a luxury resort for a night of partying and drinking. Such behavior is morally questionable and easily accessible during the age of social media, thus sending out the wrong messages to kids. These kinds of actions can have detrimental effects on young children especially during their formative years, which is the time where they are supposed to start learning how to tell right from wrong and figuring out what good behavior is.
All in all, athletes through their performances, social engagement, activism and overall behavior outside of the pitches, can set the right examples and show the right path to their young admirers. Yet, it depends to a great extent as to who children look up to. It is important to take a more holistic view of athletes and not limiting themselves to any given person’s athletic performance. In short, if all athletes could be as charitable as Cristiano Ronaldo, as community-spirited as Kobe Bryant and Marcus Rashford, and as determined as Kathrine Switzer then they would be doing a great deal in shaping a better world.