Whether it was imitating Albert Pujol’s swing, assuming the classic Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone, knocking down the fade away jumper like Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning’s Hail Mary pass to win the game, to me it was all a part of playing sports and having fun.
While I always was encouraged to play sports and found it my passion, the athletes I admired weren’t necessarily those who had the greatest reputations. Granted, Tony Hawk, Derek Jeter and LeBron James were heads above many, but then there were those athletes who I later learned were not role models at all — like Mike Piazza, Babe Ruth and Ray Lewis.
The question then is: Should athletes be role models and should we look up to them? I believe they are and here’s why.
First, a role model is someone whose behaviors and successes become goals young people strive to achieve. Professional athletes are perfect examples of this because of their determination to make it to the professional level. When they perform well and also show that they are involved in their communities, it makes it easy to look up to them. They need to accept this. Many athletes, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, J.J. Watt and Mike Trout, are known to fundraise and donate large sums of money for charities.
But many athletes don’t see themselves as role models for a variety of reasons. Charles Barkley famously identified himself during an early ‘90s Nike commercial as not being a role model. His stance was — and still is today — that the ability to dunk a basketball or catch a touchdown pass does not automatically qualify a person to be a role model.
I disagree with Barkley. This mind-set is an out for anyone who is in the public eye and doesn’t want his or her actions judged. Sure, society is obsessed with sports and scrutinizes every aspect of a professional athlete’s life.
But when the “Jumpman” symbol was plastered everywhere in the late ‘80s, Michael Jordan knew he was playing an instrumental part in many children’s lives. He knew his words and actions would reach across the world. Let’s not forget that professionals were young athletes at one point in their lives, too.
Some athletes do accept the challenge of being a role model. Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is one of them. Even though he washed out of professional football, he has made trips to Africa as a missionary, serving and helping those in need. He also openly expresses his faith, and has never been accused of unbecoming behavior. And although he has yet to find his place in professional sports, he remains a prime example of an athlete who accepts that he is a role model.
Professional athletes are human. Everyone has good days and bad. Everyone makes mistakes. For us to hold athletes to a standard that we can’t meet ourselves is impossible. Decades ago, many Americans looked to political figures, actors and scholars as role models.
Undoubtedly, times have changed and many young people today are more interested in sports. If youngsters can’t look to athletes, surely their parents are suitable role models. Right? In many cases, this is wrong. YouTube is filled with videos of parents yelling at coaches and berating referees for questionable calls. While I believe parents should serve as role models, when they don’t, youngsters turn to athletes.
A study conducted by George Washington University surveyed 150 children and found among the 81 factors identified for why children play sports, winning ranked 48. Fun and positive coaching both ranked higher on the list of factors identified by the study.
While some parents are not suitable role models, why should we stop children from looking up to the professionals? We shouldn’t. Whether they believe they are role models or not, the message most athletes are sending to young athletes is that if they work hard and are dedicated to their sport, they will succeed.
While most of us will not become professional athletes, there are so many things young athletes learn from being involved in sports — teamwork and self-discipline among them. Professional athletes need to accept this, and whether they like it or not, most are role models. By accepting this part of the job, they can encourage today’s youth to strive to be the best they can be.