The Role Model Game

By March 2, 2015Sport

I grew up as a Queenslander who idolised Australian sports persons of the late 50s and 60s. I wanted to play cricket like Mackay, Burge and Veivers. I wanted to serve and volley like Emerson and Fletcher. I wanted to be a tough and skilful footballer like Gleeson or Gallagher. I wanted to surf and swim like Murray Rose. I wanted to be Jules Guerassimoff harassing opposition halfbacks and five-eights and playing alongside Ken Catchpole. You name the sport, there were people there that I wanted to succeed, because I thought they were the best.

I formed this view mainly through the radio and newspaper; or occasionally my father might take me to a game; or through the countless hours of backyard and schoolyard play.

Today’s sports idols are more readily visible through wall to wall video, replay after replay and the myriad of social media avenues. Even the broadsheets which in the main adopt the tabloid format in all regards, are far more intrusive into the lives of our sports elite.

A recent article http://ow.ly/JNQAv again sparked my personal thinking on the whole issue of sports people and their label in society as a ‘role model’. And while the article stated in the final paragraph, that some sports people may not be suitable for this role, the rest of the article hinted that poor moral and ethical accountabilities of the sporting elite may be more general than isolated.

Let me suggest firstly that the recent cases of the Titans and Karmichael Hunt are more like ‘shark attack syndrome’.

‘Shark attack syndrome’ occurs when an unfortunate swimmer or diver is attacked by a shark. Immediately there is heightened awareness and alarm raised by media and a concerned public. It is almost as if the waters are teaming with sharks who are seeking human prey. And so to return to swimming is very dangerous till the sharks are hunted or sufficient time passes.

But at the time of the attack, there would be millions of Australians swimming in waters inhabited by sharks. The likelihood or probability of a shark attack is very very small; however the reporting of such an event is inordinately out of proportion to the populations in the water.

Here is where the ‘Role Model’ concept plays out.

There is little doubt that sportsperson’s contracts carry clauses, explicit or not, that talk in broad terms of bringing the game into disrepute. This clause or clauses in a contract is in addition to why the individual is contracted in the first place – and that is the skills which the athlete brings to the club or the event.

Not fulfilling the terms of your contract, either by way of lack of onfield performance, or by way of offield performance, bringing the game into disrepute, will have dire consequences for the athlete. And so it should, as it does in most other work place agreements.

However, either through the display of their skill, or how the athlete conducts himself or herself, or hopefully both is what we in the public see, hear, read or about which we are socially mediatised. The coverage is enormous.

I no longer have to ‘dream’ or visualise what my 50’s and 60’s sport idols looked like, what they did on the sports field, and certainly was not concerned or aware of their lives away from the sports arena – I can now get it on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube and so on, and immediately!

Most of our athletes deliver on most counts most of the time. The ‘shark attack syndrome’ says that some do not, and do it so badly, that they become the news. They take from all the good done by so many. They are the isolated cases in amongst the millions of sports people who are doing their best to play their chosen sport as skilled as they possibly can; while at the same time displaying all the ‘role model’ features we like to think sports people should display.

Unlike the unfortunate surfer or swimmer who ventures into a foreign environment and one which is home to the shark, our sports people grow up in the same environment as the rest of us. Because they play sport does not mean they automatically become different to us – become squeaky clean.

In fact Sport as a whole does an incredible job trying to guide, counsel, support, direct, discipline its young and old athletes to the demands of being a social ‘role model’ – a model which is nurtured in the everyday lives of everyday neighbourhoods, and is then catapulted onto the sporting stage for an intrusive media and a voyeuristic public to scrutinise.

Let’s make sure we understand the ‘shark attack syndrome’ of athletes who by their actions and behaviours bring the game into significant disrepute. But at the same time, let us strongly champion the majority of athletes who do incredible things onfield and off under a microscope that is not present in most other walks of life.

And finally as parents, teachers, coaches, significant others in the lives of young and impressionable sports people growing up, let’s not abrogate our responsibilities to them. As adults we can understand the difference between ‘role model’ behaviour and what is not.

Don’t miss an opportunity to catch people doing the right thing – recognise them, praise them, and use their examples for all those around them.