A lot of people are quick to say, ‘yes.’ These men and women are in the public eye, children look up to them. They are role models and should be held to a higher standard.
But that’s an incredibly black-and-white perspective on an issue that is exceptionally grey. Yes, young people do look up to athletes and they are certainly as exposed as any other celebrity in American society. But it isn’t so simple. Life is almost never black-and-white.
And to begin really looking at this, we must first debunk one of the biggest misnomers currently being perpetuated — that character has anything to do with success in sports.
Obviously this comes with the caveat that in especially egregious cases, character issues can certainly crater a career — it can act as a detriment. But in terms of achieving success? No correlation.
Let’s use professional football for example. It’s not uncommon to hear some obtuse talking head on ESPN (usually someone like Mark Schlereth or Tedy Bruschi) preaching about how character matters. From a historical standpoint though, that’s glaringly inaccurate.
Dating back, the hero of the very first Super Bowl (on Vince Lombardi’s Packers, no less) was wide receiver Max McGee. McGee infamously broke curfew the night before the Super Bowl and before the game even told Boyd Dowler — who started ahead of McGee — that he hoped he wouldn’t get hurt because McGee was in poor shape with a hangover.
By the end of that game Dowler was injured and McGee had caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns — this was clearly the result of high character.
These stories go on throughout the NFL’s history. Jim Haslett credits the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s for being the forefathers of NFL doping. The 80’s were dominated by Lawrence Taylor, who played for vaunted disciplinarian Bill Parcells and even admits — himself — that he was out of control. The Cowboys of the early 90’s were hardly angels. The 2000’s started when Ray Lewis went from being accused of murder to being awarded Super Bowl MVP in the length of one season (he now works for ESPN, the biggest culprit in espousing all of this ‘character-wins’ nonsense).
And these are only some of the bigger examples.
In college football the Miami Hurricanes of the 80’s and early 90’s made an entire program on the back of a ‘take-no-prisoners,’ bad-boy mentality.
In 1990 those Hurricanes missed out on a national title shot more as a result of voter vendetta than as a result of their actual on-field resume. They responded by racking up over 100 penalty yards in the first half alone during a 46-3 drumming of Texas in the Cotton Bowl. The ‘Canes actually said — before the game — that they’d knock the Longhorns’ kick returner unconscious on the very first play and then they actually went out and did it.
At no point in any of these anecdotes was character at a premium, and yet these are some of the most successful teams in football history.
And that’s not a new concept either. In the past, it just wasn’t as widely reported when athletes stepped out of line.
Take the 50’s and 60’s — often considered the golden age of baseball — when beat writers were basically embedded with the teams they covered. Reporters and players oftentimes went out in the evening together and drank. This was before the days when the media had such an adversarial relationship with the athletes they covered, back when a reporter wasn’t going to print that a team’s starting shortstop had been out late carousing the night before he went 0-for-4 (nowadays a guy like Johnny Manziel would kill for that kind of media relationship).
Need a concrete example? Mickey Mantle was notorious for his struggles with alcohol and his womanizing, yet a generation of children grew up idolizing ‘the Mick.’
It wasn’t until years after his career ended that any of the dirt came out.
Now, this isn’t to say athletes shouldn’t be held accountable or that a person’s character is completely irrelevant. But let’s reconsider what we look up to our athletes for.
Because honestly, if your kid is looking at an athlete for cues on how to be a good person, then chances are you’re doing a poor job of providing your own example. There needs to be a context, a discussion about what exactly it is you should admire in athletes.
Work ethic, toughness, determination and sound technique are all great traits possessed by most athletes — and they’re definitely worth emulating. After all, these are individuals who have invested countless hours, along with their blood, their sweat and their tears into honing their craft.
But for cues on being a good person? That seems a bit unreasonable.
If anything, the indiscretions and mistakes of the athletes that so many of us look at like role models should actually be the opening salvo of a much different conversation.
Life is not black-and-white. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is without flaw. And the fact that somebody who is so amazingly talented in athletics still has other places to improve themselves should underscore the fact that everyone, everywhere — no matter what age — is a work in progress.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”
That may be a healthier approach to the way we view our athletes. They are superior in some way — in their talent, their athleticism, their work ethic, their competitive drive — but let’s limit our adoration to what we see on the field.
In any other context, they’re just human. Prone to the same misgivings and indiscretions as the rest of us.
Sometimes we’d all do well to remember that.