27 August 2007

Why I don't buy the "sportspeople are role models" argument

The "sportspeople as role models" argument is one that has long grated with me.

And it's not just because the sporting prowess of wet cement together with a lack of motivation and interest led to me putting my sporting career on hold until the next life. Sure, I would have loved to have had a career at centre half-forward for the Swans, but for my innate uncoordination and getting into things like music and finance instead.

The worst part of the argument for me is that the whole discussion about this appears to have been engineered for the benefit of entities other than concerned parents, sportspeople themselves, sporting administrators and politicians.

Step forward sporting goods companies.

The inherent phoniness of the argument is made manifest when one considers that there are kids out there who do not have their favourite sportsman or woman on the wall. Apart from a brief period in the mid-eighties when I read surfing magazines, I was one of those kids.

I don't actually remember the surfers who graced my walls. Barton Lynch might have been one. I would be surprised if the the great Mark "Occy" Occhilupo and Tom Carroll weren't others.

I might have had the odd poster of the Australian Cricket Team up on my wall when I was even younger.

But my fling with professional sportsmen on my wall was a brief one.

After this, I stopped with the sportsmen outright, and started putting rock and rollers on my wall. I would have been about 12 or 13 years old.

Favourites that I recall were INXS and U2 in the early days, Hunters & Collectors and Midnight Oil a little later on, and then finally outfits like The Stems, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Violent Femmes and The Stone Roses through my final years of high school.

I always wanted an Iron Maiden poster - their album cover artwork was considered a holy grail throughout my dorm at school. I particularly loved the cover of their Powerslave album, but I digress.

If we're to accept that sporting heroes are role models, the best place to start appears to be what or who kids put on their walls. Around the dorm where I lived in my final years of high school, there were quite a few footballers - maybe on a third of the walls. I remember one guy had a prized poster of Robert DiPierdomenico and another of Leigh Matthews.

One guy had his own shrine to Stephen Silvagni with a few of Stephen Kernahan as well.

How then did my posters of rock and rollers fit in? Well, I don't for one second accept that I thought of them as role models and a quick search of the news at Google doesn't even mention musicians at all.

But the thought has crossed my mind about half a dozen times that posters for sportspeople are suspiciously plugged as appropriate for kids all too frequently, and a quick look at the ones in the stores that stock posters seems to have the answer:

Much like the posters of surfers that I put up in my early high school years, it appears to be impossible to get a poster of a sportsperson that doesn't contain a prominent logo of a sporting goods company in the corner.

Nike is the worst offender. In the early nineties, the promoted the bejesus out of Michael Jordan to the point that many Australian kids wore Nike sporting apparel with his image on them. But if you asked any Australian kids about Jordan specifically, or basketball generally, you would draw a blank. Basketball is simply a fringe game outside of North America, and Jordan happened to be photogenic.

It wasn't long before Nike discovered that the best way to sell to the rest of the world was to go for local sporting celebrities.

The face of Nike in Australia was Shane Warne - quite possibly the greatest spin bowler that world cricket has ever seen, or at least until Muttiah Muralitharan came along. Nike didn't stop there.

They hit serious paydirt when they sponsored Ronaldo and the rest of the Brazilian national football (soccer) team in a year when Brazil were unstoppable in winning a fourth world cup and they then managed to re-create this in 2002 when Brazil did it again.

And the posters of surfers always had their sponsors figuring promptly as well. Show me a poster of a surfer without a Billabong or Rip Curl logo in the corner and I'll show you a magazine logo instead.

But the whole argument that sportspeople are role models appears to be somewhat contrived, particularly when no one takes the notion seriously that musicians gracing other kids walls might also be.

I put it to you that sporting goods manufacturers drive the debate around this. If not then why don't musicians ever get a look in?

For the record, my role model, if I had one when I was growing up, was my dad. I don't think I ever had a poster of him on the wall. And I don't think that I'm different to many others.


KitKat said...

Muttiah Muralitharan is a chucker.

I don't care what those biomechanists say.

KitKat said...

And Shane Warne is a bogun. But at least he isn't a chucker.

"Nike: Just Be A Bogun"

KitKat said...

If Pete Doherty was sponsored by Nike, do you think they'd put pressure on him to straighten up?

Dikkii said...

Nike would have already dropped Pete Doherty like a flash.

Not "family friendly" enough.

Honestly, these companies believe their own line of bullshit about their posterchilds being role models.

Warne - bogan.

Murali? - let's just say this about his arm which is unable to extend. If someone with no arms at all came in to bowl with a bowling machine, they'd be no-balled. I think it says it all.

Greg said...

Dikki, you need to be careful about generalising from a sample of one. Despite your experiences, I think that sports people are role models for young people, especially boys, and have been for ages.

I disagree that the huge take-off in "sports marketing" explains this phenomenon.

Much like for political parties in the US, does the corporate dollar make them popular ... or are the corporations following and cashing in on existing popularity?

The conventional wisdom is that it's the former, but I think it's more of a complex interplay between the two.

Nike has a huge budget and a lot of very smart and ruthless people working for them. It's not surprising that they routinely back winners.

As for musicians ... they're just not in the same league. Maybe it's approachability: I doubt too many turn up at schools to sign guitars.

Consider also the huge number of column inches and "news" minutes given over to covering sport, compared with music. Doesn't even come close. Check the magazine rack at your local newsagent. Check who's face appears on breakfast cereal.

Importantly, I think parents perceive sportfolk as "safer" role models. Better to have Ricky Ponting's visage on a muesli bar than Marilyn Manson's, right?

Whatever it is, there's definitely a pronounced hero-effect going on with sports. Admittedly, for many young people, it peaks at around 12 and then drops away. And not every kid has their own preferences catered for.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that sports stars routinely top the list of role models and heroes for most kids and did so long before the massive marketing budgets we see today.

Dikkii said...

Much like for political parties in the US, does the corporate dollar make them popular ... or are the corporations following and cashing in on existing popularity?

Ignoring the inherent denialism in even asking this question (Thank You For Smoking, anyone?), this is a question that I liken to this:

Does R&B have street cred with the youth in the same vein as hip hop because it is a gritty, rebellious genre, or are record companies guilty of generating a market?

You would be being deaf, dumb and blind if you answered the former. R&B is bland balladeering from people heavily marketed to look like hip hoppers, with hip hop producers paid big bikkies to make their backing tracks as hip hop as possible.

"Oh, I swear/I'll love you forair/ver" is simply not in the same league as "Hey, bitch, wait'll you see my dick. Wait'll you see my dick. Hey, bitch. I'm 'a beat that pussy up."

No kid is lame enough to buy this shit (R&B) without record company interference.

You simply cannot deny the clout of sports marketing in raising the profile of certain sportspeople well above the pale. If it wasn't for Nike's affiliation with Jordan, most Australians would never have heard of him.

Even today, we all know sheep, sorry, people who wore Jordan-branded sportswear in Australia - I'm guessing you'd know as many as me.

But we can all say that only a fraction of them really were familiar with the guys feats on the basketball court. Of this, I'm sure you'll agree.

And, in a weird crossover, check out the sudden upsurge in Run-DMC's career in the eighties after being heavily promoted by Adidas.

On the subject of a sample size of one, I actually did refer to my dorm in year 12. OK, I did go to school with rednecks, but if you're suggesting that about a third of them considered footballers as their role models, another third of them considered musicians as their role models and the remaining third considered the humble beer stubby as theirs, by all means go ahead.

It's counter-intuitive, though. So yeah, Ponting is on a muesli bar. So what? How does this make him a "role model"?

I disagree that a hero is a role model. My hero growing up was not my dad, it was Mark McEntee of the Divinyls. My dad doesn't play guitar from behind a floppy blonde fringe while a buxom lead singer straddles a microphone stand dressed in a school uniform and torn fishnets. My dad was (and still is) my role model. That is, I wanted to be like him when I grew up, and not McEntee.

I don't deny that some kids consider that some sports people are theirs, I simply don't buy into the argument that every Hayden, Jayden and Waiyne growing up does. I think the facts are a long way removed.

So I suppose that my next question is this. Given that I've explained my sample that I've used to arrive at my conclusions about people's role models, aren't you a bit guilty yourself about generalising about who considers whom to be role models?

Dikkii said...

I had a bit more of think about this one, and the following questions really need to be seriously looked at in light of my post:

1. Ignoring the question of whether they’re “role models” or not, do musicians, for example, occupy a similar position in a kids world to that occupied by pro sportspeople? The answer is a resounding “yes”.

2. Who buys sporting paraphernalia and muesli bars for the children of a household? Parents.

3. Who buys CDs, t-shirts and other music-related merch for the children of a household? The kids themselves.

4. Who stands to gain by proclaiming sportspeople as role models? The answer is anyone who uses them to sell stuff, be that sporting goods manufacturers, muesli bar companies etc or the sports themselves.

5. Why? Because parents (and by this, I certainly do not meant the kids) want these sports stars to be considered role models by the kids.

6. Who stands to gain by proclaiming musicians as role models? No one. In fact, it could be argued that record companies etc stand to lose by proclaiming musicians as role models.

7. Why? Kids see anyone assuming “role model” status as having sold out to The Man.

8. Who stands to lose when someone previously considered a role model trips up? Anyone who is selling something being bought by parents. The music industry usually stands to gain, as notoriety sells – again, notice that it is the kids who assign the cred here, not the parents.

9. Shouldn’t a child’s role models be their parents? I’ll let you answer this.

10. And shouldn’t abrogating role model responsibility to sporting identities whose behaviour the parents have no control over be considered bad parenting? Again, I’ll let you answer this one.

11. Is it suspicious, then, that the role model debate centres on sportspeople at the expense of, for example, musicians, given that they occupy a similar place in kids’ world? Completely.

12. Lastly, given that children can think for themselves, who the fuck are we to tell them who their role models should and shouldn’t be, and how they should or shouldn’t behave?

Greg said...

I think we're at cross-purposes about what a "role model" is. Do you perhaps mean something closer to mentor?

my role model, if I had one when I was growing up, was my dad.


I disagree that a hero is a role model. My hero growing up was not my dad, it was Mark McEntee of the Divinyls.

I think a role model is someone that kids are interested in, impressed by, look up to and aspire to be like.

They often express this as a wish to be near them/see them, the purchasing of products they endorse (or nagging, by younger kids), an intimate knowledge of their exploits and yes, posters on the wall.

When you're talking about kids - not 16/17/18, but kids - then musicians don't come close to sports stars as role models.

I have regular contact with primary school aged children and junior secondary. Trust me, they don't know who Joey Ramone is, but they love James Hird.

P. Diddy and Snoop Dogg might argue they're good role models. Maybe. But the only "rappers" on bubblegum swap cards went in the bin; the cards themselves feature sportsfolk, not musicians.

Is this just parents or the media or Nike shoving this down kids' throats? No. They capitalise on it, they exaggerate it. But kids look up to sports stars and have for a century or more.

The only musos that are comparable are The Wiggles and Hi-5, and even that is just for the 2-5 year olds.

Put Anthony Callea and James Hird at either end of the primary school playground at lunchtime and see where the crowd gathers. (I bet I know whose autograph is worth more too.)

Sure, kids will always have non-sporting role models, especially the older ones. (Hawking and Gervais made Top 10 in this survey of older kids ... alongside mostly sports stars.)

I think your average Woiyne might enjoy music, but not really care about who makes it. And certainly not aspire to be like them. The same can't be said for Woyine's cricket or athletics role models.

Why is this? Maybe it's because sports stars are more media-friendly and accessible. Maybe kids play more sport than music. Maybe kids are encouraged to follow sportspeople? Maybe it's cheaper and easier for them.

Either way, the majority of kids spend the majority of the childhood looking up to sportspeople; they occupy a unique position in society in this regard.

Dikkii said...

Greg, I'm not referring to a mentor. The fact that I considered my father is my role model has everything to do with "someone that kids are interested in, impressed by, look up to and aspire to be like."

Which sums my father up. Yeah he was a mentor as well, but he filled both positions. I viewed McEntee largely the same way that I viewed Occhilupo earlier in life.

You have a point about tweens. If anything, I was more focussed on high school aged kids who aren't necessarily going to buy what is shoved down their throats as to who they should aspire to be like.

Is this just parents or the media or Nike shoving this down kids' throats? No.

You don't really believe this, do you?

But kids look up to sports stars and have for a century or more.

And I don't dispute this. But deifying this as role modelage is hyperbolic in the least, and hysterical in the most.

By the way, the reason that I wrote "for example" every time I mentioned musicians, is because I was only using them as an example. Based on the results of the survey you linked to, I'm even more convinced now that the role models argument supposedly attributable to sportspeople is a steaming pile.

Incidentally, the survey was an interesting one. I'd be keen to see how they defined "role model" for the purposes of the survey.

And you may have been more than just a little mischievous with the survey results - for the record:

1. Jonny Wilkinson (sportsman)
2. Stephen Hawking (non-sportsman)
3. David Beckham (sportsman)
=4. Lennox Lewis (sportsman)
=4. Ricky Gervais (non-sportsman)
6. Vinnie Jones (questionable)
7. Jeremy Clarkson (non-sportsman)
8. Richard Branson (non-sportsman)
9. Steven Redgrave (sportsman)
10. David Jason (non-sportsman)

At 5.5/10, this is hardly the vast majority that you build it up to be. Even this is charitable to Jones, because the kids of today certainly wouldn't remember his football days. Really, he's not a sportsman now. Which makes it 5/10.

I also question the honesty of the results - David Jason, really?

Your comment about approachability was good, I felt. Musicians in particular cultivate an air of coolness that footballers do not. However, I think that you put Callea and Hird in a co-ed playground, I daresay we would probably have had a 50:50 proposition before Callea came out. But kids being the homophobes that they are makes this point largely academic.

No idea who the kids are into these days, but if we use bums on seats as a proxy, lets make it interesting and use 50 Cent. You really think Hird has a chance?

Anyway, I'm not moving on this issue, and you probably already have worked this out.

Dikkii said...

Got my maths wrong on the survey:

Sportspeople 4.5
Non-sportspeople 5.5

If Jones is a non-sportsperson for the purposes of this survey:

Sportspeople 4
Non-sportspeople 6

Some days I just can't count.

Greg said...

It's also worth pointing out the survey of 500 British kids (from three years ago) was of over-16s.

I maintain that sporting figures would feature more prominently still amongst the 5-15 set.

Disappointing that you've gone all fundamentalist on me; I had you pegged as a fellow Free Thinker.

Tell you what, I'll ask a mate of mine who is a primary school teacher. (He tried to get me to talk to his class on the grounds that he felt they should be thinking beyond motor-cross and footy!)

What do you think is a fair, unbiased question I can ask him? Something like:

"Do sporting figures feature as role models for most children more than other figures like musicians?"

I can also informally check with a large pool of primary/early-secondary students that I volunteer with. Coming out with "who's your role model" might be a bit strong, but maybe I'll casually ask some of them who they look up to?

Hopefully we're both open enough to evidence that we don't have entrenched positions on this.

Dikkii said...

Definitely open to some kind of evidence on this.

I'd probably go with a bunch of questions, all asking the same thing and this would be the easy way. However, you know how kiddies are with surveys.

Incidentally, I suspect that we've both missed the elephant in the room which is this:

Shouldn’t abrogating role model responsibility to sporting identities whose behaviour the parents have no control over be considered bad parenting?

I don't know why mentoring and role modelling have to be mutually exclusive. And I maintain that calling a sporting identity a "role model" (or anyone else, for that matter) is an easy "out" for the lazy (or dissolute, irresponsible, reprobate, insert adjective here) parent.

Disappointing that you've gone all fundamentalist on me; I had you pegged as a fellow Free Thinker.

Very droll, considering that I'm questioning what appears to be very much the status quo on this.

KitKat said...

Interesting to note that all the "role models" you mentioned are male, also the survey done of British kids was actually only boys, and unsurprisingly, turned up only men.

Now, the women/role model thing is a can of worms and I don't really want to open it here. Just thought I would point it out. I think it goes deep into our society's psyche in many ways. (Yes there are women promoted as role models, but a minuscule amount compared to men - musicians are possibly the exception).

I have never had a role model. Never met or seen anyone I wanted to be like completely. Certainly not my parents. I think I've always felt that I've had to make my own way. There aren't many female engineer/scientists around that I could have made my role model, anyway.

More relevant to this particular post is why sportsmen(people) as role models? I had this thought. If you're looking at the 5-15 y.o. age bracket, these kids are really actually imagining themselves being those people. If you compare what they're doing to sportspeople, musicians, scientists etc., it is much easier for a kid to imagine themselves as their favourite sportstar, since they can kick a footy a bit, swing a cricket bat, lob a basketball, and their imagination easily sees them producing the winning goal, runs, wicket etc. It is a lot easier to imagine than compared to some kid who's had 20 piano lessons and can play 3 scales with one hand imagining themselves morphing into whoever passes for musicians in the kiddies sphere these days. And no kid even really know what science is, so why would they idolise a scientist?

Human nature (generally) seems to have us wanting to be better than the next person (survival of the fittest?) and we also seem to take on "proxy" status, ie. if my friend, family member, footy team, proclaimed favourite sportstar etc. has done better than yours, then somehow I'm better too. Many people grow out of this, but in the playground at school it is all very real.

As to whether we thought of these folk as role models first, or the corporations promoted it, I think it's a bit of a chicken and egg argument. But I do certainly agree that the corporations have jumped on the bandwagon, while simultaneously giving it a big shove. It is very easy for us mere mortals to be influenced by images we see all the time, and of course the marketing worms are going to use those. Sportsfolk tend to need to live fairly healthy lives to maintain their position at the top of their sport, while for others its not so vital, and this leads to the image/expectation that they are squeaky clean living. But then they get effectively cloistered, totally focussed on their sport (and access to limited role models outside their sphere), plus lots of cash and idolation, and then I think so many of them end up screwed in the head that I'm not surprised they end up on the gear. Seems obvious to me. Vicious circle.

I could keep going, but you can have your blog back now, Dikkii.

Dikkii said...

It's a very interesting point that you make, Kitkat.

Certainly one thing that I've noticed is that when the words "role model" surface, the candidates in question are almost always male.

I wonder why this is? Is this more latent sexism in society? Are we all guilty of telling females that they should be living their lives as if they were male?

KitKat said...

Dikki, there are many, many reasons. In terms of sport, women are directly competitive with men in very few sports - equestrian is one of the few I can think of. So, even though female sportsfolk may display all the admirable qualities of a sporting role model, such as dedication, hard work, commitment and skill, the blokes will be faster, higher, stronger.

Also, in most societies around the world, women are typecast into the role of carer. How many times do you hear of "mother of x many children" doing something, compared to "father of x many children"? If a woman becomes a mother, it's all "ooh, ahh! she does things other than raise children!" The same idea is rarely applied to men. What sort of message do you think this sends?

The media exacerbates this of course. (With some exceptions, eg RRR). How many pin-ups of male sportsmen are published vs. female? And are the women chosen specifically for their sporting prowess, or their good looks? Would you be more likely to find a poster of Serena Williams or Anna Kournikova (pre retirement) in the Herald Sun?

And then there's the "good woman" complex... women aren't "supposed" to be competitive, muscular and sweaty. I'll admit to finding Venus and Serena Williams a bit scary, although they are magnificent athletes. So I'm indoctrinated too.

Yes, it is more of the quandary facing women in non-traditional roles. Are they supposed to be feminine, or act like a bloke? If the former, it's all high heels and makeup, and the latter invites judgment as being butch or lesbian. Should women try to be blokes, or is their role confined to making cakes for the fundraiser at the footy club? The bimbette stick-insects paraded around on the arms of our national sporting heroes are the women receiving the majority of coverage in the sports media - probably as much as sportswomen themselves. In this vein, these are probably the ones promoted as "role models". Cringe.

So, to be proclaimed a role model, in order of importance:
For blokes:
1. Skill
2. Other, including looks
For women:
1. Looks
2. Other, including skill

Growing up, I was never particularly attracted to sports where there isn't a women's version, and I think this is why I don't like AFL or rugby - yes, there are women's codes now, but guess what - the women who play are either actually gay, or universally labelled with that tag. I knew from a young age that there was women's cricket around - though I never got the opportunity to play - but it did make me feel a bit more included, also since cricket is much less purely physical, and therefore more accessible to a girl's imagination. By a stroke of fate, the two sports I was involved with as a kid were basketball and swimming - both with national women's teams that are internationally competitive (I did know who Michael Jordan was, and a couple of years before the non-basketballers did).

That's a few worms out of the can. I'm no sociologist, and this is a very deep issue.

Greg said...

Unfortunately, I find myself in broad agreement with Neil Mitchell, writing an opinion piece in The Hun.

In accordance with my personal creed, I must now go quiet on this issue while I do some deep soul-searching and work through my self-loathing.

I thank you for your continued support during this difficult time for me.

The Rev. Jenner J. Hull said...

My Father started his own business in his early twenties (engine remanufacturing) and it lasted until he was in his mid-40's. Once he sold his business (and officially "retired"), he still sought work. Now he helps run a landscaping/plant nursery business.

I, on the other hand, am a lazy fuck. I'm a writer (like, most writers, of the "asprining" variety), and not a worker. I make up stories in my head and tell them to people, so I'm almost completely worthless.

My father has always been a "role-model," in that he is the hardest worker I've ever known.

Some celebrities are also "role models" in that they are very good at what they do.

I love LeBron "King" James because he's a basketball player from the days of old. He wants nothing more than his team to win an NBA championship. Sure, he may be the most popular (and lucrative) player since Jordan, but he wants his TEAM to win, not just himself. (And he's also the reason I root for the Cleveland Cavs, one of the most historically pathetic basketball teams in American history.)

Role models should never be all-encompassing. Especially those in sports.

I was always smart enough to separate the athlete from the person (after all, Darryl Strawberry was my favorite baseball player until the early nineties) the same way I separate the actor from the role.

People shoud idolize the athlete in a specific role within the pertinent sport, but we should always see that person as a normal person.

Luckily, with someone like LeBron "King" James, he's cool enough to be a decent guy outside basketball. He doesn't carry guns to clubs, he doesn't fight pitbulls, and he doesn't talk shit about other people.

He just plays the game; and in the context of the game, he is a role model. He steps on the court (or field, or pitch) and scores, like he's supposed to.

But Dikkii's right, overall. Sports figures shouldn't be social role models. In any circumstances.

If you want a social role model, find a politician who really cares about the electorate.

Good luck, by the way...

The Rev. Jenner J. Hull said...


And someone mentioned Pete Doherty.

One of the most worthless human beings to ever walk the Earth.

With no musical talent to speak of, all he has is tabloid noteriety.

Here's hoping that no one ever hears of him or his shitty band again...

Dikkii said...

Holy crap, I go off to Thailand for a couple of weeks and the commments board lights up.

Clearing the slate:

Kitkat, this is indeed a deep issue and it is further confused by what appears to be a serious gender imbalance. Given your point that most sportswomen are plugged as "eye-candy", I would go one step further and put it that this particular aspect is talked up entirely at the expense of role-modelry. On the other hand, men are promoted as role models entirely on the basis of skill and then maybe looks. There's something particularly wrong about this, and I can't put my finger on it.

Greg - your agreement with the odious Mitchell is somewhat puzzling. I thought with your libertarian (feel awfully funny using this adjective with an Aussie) tendencies, this bloke would be right up your alley. It seems that I'm way off the mark, just like all your role model stereotypes.

Jenner, thanks for popping by. Nice to see you. Agree on Pete Doherty by the way - the Libertines were crap and Babyshambles are totally not any better. My father started as an apprentice fitter and turner who then went on to study engineering part time before finishing up as a CEO of a shipping line before he retired. He also manages to make all my friends laugh.

I particularly like your bit about suggesting politicians with a social conscience as role models, but this shouldn't be about who we suggest as being appropriate for the kids - this should be about who they deem to be appropriate for them. And if, as you rightly recognise, they are not picking out their parents as being appropriate, I agree that something is not quite right.