I live just outside Milwaukee, Wisc. I grew up in Seattle. In 1969, the Seattle Pilots were formed as an expansion team, lasted one year in Seattle, then were sold to Milwaukee investors and became the Brewers. Therefore, I have a particularly long-standing bond to the team. I was at the game where Robin Yount got his 3000th hit, attended when Miller Park opened and the All-Star game came to town, and I watched with dismay as St. Louis once again took away the Brewers’ chance to win the Division title and go to the World Series. Now another chapter has opened without anyone knowing how the book will end. Ryan Braun, who had doping charges dismissed (on a technicality), now finds himself back in the performance-enhancing drug (PED) limelight along with 19 other players. This recent investigation reopens the discussion on how much professional sports players need to accept and nurture their position as role models to youth players. Charles Barkley famously said that he was not a role model and shouldn’t be held to that standard. Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, stated that emulating sports figures and other celebs as role models is "ridiculous — Babe Ruth was a terrible role model." He continued by saying we shouldn’t look to them for how to live life. Unfortunately, young players don’t have the context or maturity to make those distinctions. In their eyes, these celebrities hold an untarnished spot on a pedestal that covers all aspects of life.
What exactly constitutes a role model? Media stars might be admired for exterior attributes such as clothes, hair styles, party life, cool attitudes, swagger and bling. For a true role model designation, we parents are looking for character in our sports stars. Certainly the ability to play the game well, show leadership on the field, maintain an aggressive winning attitude and demonstrating good sportsmanship are important aspects of that character, but we expect that anyone that achieves star status does so because of these attributes. The deeper aspects of character a role model exhibits are those moral qualities we all hope our kids grow up to possess such as honesty, kindness, loyalty, commitment, integrity and respect (i.e. men towards women and one race to another race). We know the likelihood of our children becoming elite professional players hovers somewhere around no chance to impossible. But the likelihood of our children becoming parents, co-workers, neighbors, volunteers and citizens of a community are nearly 100 percent. Therefore, we want the people they venerate to possess values that create principled adults.
Therein lies the rub. While there are plenty of examples of highly honorable sports and media stars, the press doesn’t feel there are newsworthy stories in highlighting good character. We occasionally hear about someone running into a burning building to save a woman or providing CPR to an accident victim, extreme stories that don’t necessarily illustrate character and only add to the "superhero" labels we place on these stars. Instead, we get the sensational stories of a fall from grace. "Oh, not again," escapes our lips all too often. We’ve watched Lance Armstrong be accused for, lie about and finally mince words concerning his use of PEDs. In 2003, a Baylor University football player murdered a fellow player, which on its own is repugnant enough, but then the team coach told his players to lie to the NCAA and say that the murdered player was a drug dealer. Of course, we all remember the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal that brought down one of the most revered college football coaches in the United States. We can go all the way back to 1919 to reference the White Sox World Series-fixing scandal involving Shoeless Joe Jackson leading to that apocryphal phrase uttered by a young Jackson fan, "Say it ain’t so Joe." Even without video, 24-hour news coverage and dozens of pundits weighing in ad nauseam, American youth witnessed their hero crumble before their eyes. Looking to their sports stars to offer guidance and ideals isn’t new and comes with the territory. Whether Charles Barkley wanted it or not, he is a standard bearer for youth players.
Naturally, our kids want to dress like their heroes, talk like them, and most importantly, play like them. Buying a jersey of or getting tickets to watch a player isn’t setting a bad precedent. When Robbie was 5 and 6 he wanted his hair cut like Edgar Bennett of the Green Bay Packers. Bennett changed his style every couple of weeks, so I got to be quite the expert with the hair clippers! These types of identifiers give kids a sense of pride and self-worth. Of course, if their idol has clay feet, it can be devastating to that self-image, making the kids feel bad for supporting a "loser" and occasionally having to bear the taunts of peers. Many of our children are too young to understand the details of these downfalls, but they do understand their ideal is now considered a villain. We can alleviate some of these worthless feelings by focusing on positives, such as how the player keeps his or her composure, any honesty the player expresses, and how the team has rallied in support of the player. But before anything negative happens, we can help our children look for and identify those character traits in the star that are inherent to becoming a good human being.
Everyone who loves soccer knows David Beckham. He can be pretty wild with his tattoos and underwear ads. He sets style with his clothing and his hair. His abilities on the field are legendary. But we can also point out his other strong qualities. He’s a family man who respects his wife and spends time with his four children, who all seem well-adjusted considering the money and the notoriety that comes with the Beckham name. He also participates in several charities, both actively as a volunteer and as a donator. On the field, he is regularly known for his sportsmanship, although early in his career he had some problems with ego and temper. But he learned from his mistakes and humbly has acknowledged his on-field behavior wasn’t always exemplary, including being sent off during the 1998 World Cup and giving the finger to the crowd for taunting him in 2000. But those shenanigans ended. The World Cup incident resulted in many fans accusing him of losing the Cup for England, and he received death threats. It was a wake-up call for him that he did have a responsibility as both a leader and a role model. Three "scandals" involving Beckham and infidelity all faded away when challenged. He handled them with dignity. We parents can remind our children of Beckham’s qualities beyond his strong right foot so that they learn to focus on the character aspects not on the just the media hype.
Christie Rampone of the U.S. Women’s Team can be idolized for her athletic ability. At age 37, she continues to be a strong force on the team and fills the role of team captain. However, we parents need to point out to our kids that Christie has other important characteristics that will last long beyond her playing career. Despite contracting Lyme disease in 2011, she persevered with training and playing, although she admitted to "taking more naps." She has two children who travel with her on the road and has been married for 12 years. She keeps up a busy schedule supporting charities that address autism, cancer and military groups that help veterans. She is well-respected for her leadership qualities and her good sportsmanship on the field.
Even players caught in scandalous situations can offer teaching moments for our kids. Ray Smalls, a player at Ohio State from 2006-2009, was caught in 2011 selling memorabilia and admitted to knowing about other players selling memorabilia in exchange for tattoos and receiving special deals at a car dealership. In addition, he was arrested for drug possession. He immediately agreed to cooperate with authorities even though it meant bringing down a program and a coach that had embraced him as a player. As he put it, "You can’t just keep having mistakes over and over." When apologizing for his actions, Small said, "I am truly sorry for my actions. . . I’m here today to speak up on my behalf and say I’m a man and I understand the things I have done wrong." Those words should be something we impress upon our children — that no matter what mistakes we make, we need to admit to them rather than offer defensive excuses, and accept the consequences of our choices. During an earlier PED probe in Major League Baseball leading to suspensions, several players admitted their blame and apologized. Mike Morse said, "First and foremost, I want to apologize to the fans, my teammates, the Mariners' organization, baseball and to my family. . . I took steroids while in the Minor Leagues. . . I was desperate and made a terrible mistake, which I deeply regret." Matt Lawton said this about his suspension: "I made a terrible and foolish mistake that I will regret for the rest of my life. I take full responsibility for my actions and did not appeal my suspension. I apologize to the fans, the game, my family and all those people that I let down. I am truly sorry and deeply regret my terrible lapse in judgment." Those apologies taking full responsibility for recklessness in behavior can do more to bolster the moral development of our children than any home run record or magnificent goal.
Kids do change their allegiances as new stars emerge or their interests become more focused. As parents, we can help steer their loyalties in the right direction, pointing out the weaknesses in some players’ characters and the strengths in others. Our children may not care that Alex Rodriguez took PEDs or that Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Matterazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. They may even see such behaviors as acceptable and even preferable in our winner-take-all society. So, we parents need to create a context in which those actions can be rightfully judged. Alex Rodriguez holds one of the largest contracts ever paid to a professional baseball player of $275 million over 10 years, eclipsing his previous contract of $252 million. He had plenty at stake to take PEDs and then to deny taking them. He finally admitted to using PEDs from 2001 to 2003, citing "an enormous amount of pressure" to perform after the threat of legal action was gone. He never apologized. Now he finds himself the subject of another investigation. He may have felt he had the need to perform, but the real motivator appears to be money and avoiding prosecution. Zidane said that Matterazzi had made lewd comments about his mother and sister leading to the head-butt. However, at the time, Italy and France were locked in a tough overtime game to decide the winner of the World Cup, so emotions were running high on both sides. His action came in the 110th minute. He refused to apologize to Matterazzi, but also accepted that what he did was wrong saying he "could never have lived with myself" had he been permitted to remain in the game. In lieu of a three-game suspension, since Zidane had already retired from professional soccer, he accepted a three-day participation in FIFA community service with children. This led to his involvement in dozens of charity soccer events all over the world benefiting the plight of impoverished children. He continues to pursue this charity work. His tale can illustrate to our kids several lessons: The person who retaliates is the person who gets caught. It’s important to accept the severity of an action. And we should use our mistakes to learn how to rise to a better pattern of behavior. We parents can provide past, present and future context to any faulty action of a celebrity and help our children to discover the important aspects of character that can be learned from those actions. In that way, we are not only providing the framework for a true role model, but we are also role modeling for our kids how to measure the behaviors of both heroes and peers.