Why sports stars should not be role models

Why sports stars should not be role models

Originally published: Opinion: Why sports stars should not be role models (August 5, 2013) – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It was difficult to explain to my 7-year-old grandson, an avid baseball and Milwaukee Brewers fan, why MVP Ryan Braun was no longer in left field. Violating the rules, trying to circumvent a level playing field by taking a competitive advantage and deceiving the public, his employer, teammates and friends was a difficult explanation for a 7-year-old to comprehend.

His response, however, was interesting: “I don’t think Ryan Braun is my favorite player anymore.” How disappointing it was to see the player possessed of Hank Aaron wrists take a shocking fall from grace.

It brings to light the ever-nagging problem as to how we view professional athletes. We should celebrate and emulate their on-field heroics. Dedication, physical prowess, work ethic, perseverance, sacrifice and teamwork are characteristics that set them apart. Professional athletes’ on- and off-the-field flamboyance, larger-than-life persona and constant limelight presence make them unforgettable figures in our lives.

We are a nation in search of everyday heroes. We are a nation of sports wannabes. Professional sports give us the time and permit us to spend the money to escape the realities of our ordinary existence.

So prevalent and important is sports and the professional athlete that our youths make an attempt to mimic the behavior, lifestyles and dress of those athletically possessed. It’s all about “Be like Mike.”

But that’s exactly where it should stop. It is most difficult to sustain a squeaky clean image for a professional athlete with today’s non-stop media coverage and exposure, and it is even ever more difficult for athletes to escape the consequences of their errors. (Major League Baseball suspended 13 more players Monday as part of its Biogenesis investigation.)

Once the athletes leave the playing field, their lives may take on a different dimension. Professional athletes are just like you and me. They have all the foibles, human deficiencies, character flaws and closet shadows as do all other human beings.

Sometimes, the sports pages read like a criminal rap sheet with reports of anti-social behavior ranging from alcoholism, DUIs, sexual abuse, substance abuse, deceit, paternity, gambling and now even murder. Certainly some of our most idolized sports heroes have been great disappointments, such as Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson and Pete Rose, to name a few.

By casting athletes as role models, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. We need to readjust our expectations for athletes once the game is over. We require athletes to be more than what they are, and we scorn athletes for what they are not. Even worse, if they win, we forgive and forget.

Athletes get paid to beat opponents; athletes don’t get paid to be paradigms of morality. In our sports-crazed society, too much emphasis is put on the athletic enterprise, Professional sports is a big business — one of the largest business enterprises in American society — and has become an industry of multimillion-dollar contracts and an invasion of corporate America. Let’s not forget, we’re talking about games and a form of entertainment.

Yes, maybe professional athletes should be role models, but they aren’t. Former NBA player Charles Barkley said it so well, “I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

We must put our perspectives in balance. Emulate doctors who save lives, lawyers who protect the constitutional rights of citizens, professors who light up bright minds, scientists who make life-changing discoveries, an artist who creates a work of art and the wealthy who share their fortune for a worthy cause.

The heroes in our life — those who we should place on an emulated pedestal — are those people who teach us right from wrong. Hopefully that is a parent’s obligation to mold their children in their formative years and teach them responsibility and accountability. Responsible parents should be our real role models — not rock stars, Hollywood, celebrities or professional athletes.

We are a nation that forgives and forgets. We are a nation that grants second chances. We don’t care if pro athletes screw up unless they screw up with the football in their hands. Don’t confuse game statistics with character.

Braun will be given another chance to excel on the field, and we may forgive, but we will never forget.

Martin J. Greenberg is a Milwaukee attorney who teaches a course at Marquette University Law School on representing athletes and coaches.