No Boundaries Nirmal Shekar

Can great athletes be role models?

The other day, I was talking to a primary school teacher who also happens to be a die-hard sports fan, a man who spends almost all his leisure time in front of the television watching sports.

“It is better than watching films and I also get to relate to my students better as a sports lover,” he said. “Still it surprised me when, one day, I asked them who their heroes were. Almost 70 per cent of the kids, all aged between 10 and 11, named sports stars as their heroes. And among male children, it was close to 90 per cent.”

Long before they get to understand what is important in life, long before they get to ask themselves some of life’s more difficult questions, long before they settle on the set of values to live their lives by, children — especially in this era of 24/7 news cycle — tend to treat their favourite sportspersons as demigods blessed with superhuman powers.

Children sometimes admire their sports heroes more than they admire their own parents or teachers and are often naïve enough to believe that their idols can do no wrong; they believe too that the men and women who perform thrilling acts on the field of sports are models of perfection.

Now the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has joined the bandwagon, saying that the Indian cricketers have to strive to become role models for youngsters.

So what do they have in mind? That, overnight do they want fierce, aggressive competitors to turn into new avatars, doing a fair imitation of Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa?

But there have been thousands of instances when great athletes have behaved in a manner that was hardly in keeping with their image as I-can-do-nothing-wrong supermen.

This is precisely why it is scary sometimes when you think that so many children hold their icons up to unrealistically high standards while paying little attention to the real role models — soldiers, fire-fighters, teachers, scientists, care givers and social workers, to name only a few — who beaver away in the trenches of everyday existence.

“I am not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” said the NBA star Charles Barkley candidly back in 1993.

Then again, for every say-as-it-is realist such as Barkley, there are tens of sportsmen who claim the idealistic high ground, hoping to live up to their own expectations of themselves while also sending the right message to their followers.

Against great odds

“Sports is a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and achieving against great odds. Athletes, in times of difficulty, can be important role models,” said the erudite Bill Bradley, a Hall of Fame basketball player and a Rhodes scholar.

Is there place for such idealism in the 21st century when so much is at stake in each big game and winning has become the only thing that is acceptable at the top levels of sport?

But then, what do we mean when we say that somebody is a role model? According to the Oxford Dictionary, a role model is “a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.”

It is easy enough to look up to a Sachin Tendulkar or a Michael Jordan and try to imitate them, on and off the field, but how many young ones can hope to become the next Tendulkar or Jordan?

But for every Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid, men with squeaky clean images, there are dozens of others — Mike Tyson, Larry Armstrong, Ray Rice, Tiger Woods — whose behavioural patterns off the stage are hardly worth emulating.

“Athletes as role models and heroes is a hoax, a sick hoax. The men and women who are fighting in Iraq, they are the true heroes,” said Gale Sayers — nicknamed The Kansas Comet — who played in the American National Football League in the 1960s and early70s.

It takes men such as Sayers and Barkley to bring us back down to earth, although this does not mean that sports idealists should cede the moral high ground completely and come to accept sport as Orwell saw it — war minus the shooting.

But professional sport, with all its commercialisation and its emphasis on winning does not leave much room for idealism, no matter that we still have many gentleman sportsmen who you might think wouldn’t be out of place on your child’s bedroom wall.

Yet, the pressures of pro sport in this day and age are so much that the accent is never on good behaviour — on field and elsewhere — alone. Heroes are not always winners and winners are the ones that coaches, managers, team owners and even fans want.

There is so much money in some of the more popular sports today that even a notorious bad boy — a winner and a brat — of the first half of the 20 century, such as a Babe Ruth, would have been shocked. And big money and morality only rarely go hand in hand.

The point is, when you dig deeper and go beyond the hagiography churned out by PR agents, not many of today’s athletic megastars would qualify as role models. That’s the plain truth.

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 2:16:24 pm |