Role Models: When Sports Figures Don't Measure Up

Derek CoffeltSenior Analyst IOctober 28, 2008

Sports. They have been a blessing and a curse for me.

I've seen some memorable moments. The 1998 NFC Championship Game (Atlanta v. Minnesota), the 2006 World Series (Detroit v. St. Louis), and the 1997-1998 NBA Finals (Utah v. Chicago) and so many more in between.

However, I've seen some historical lows. The 1994 MLB strike, the 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl, and the never ending story of Adam "Pacman" Jones just to name a few.

The advent of technology has made accessing these stories, good and bad, readily available to impressionable youngsters across the world. One has to wonder: are these kids still looking up to these fallible figures as role models?

It's common practice for parents to try and give their children someone in their main stream media to look up to. Kids also do this on their own because they see something they can relate to. More often than not, it's because they're famous and are the "masters" of their profession.

It's no secret that kids strive to find something that they can have some control over. It's also no secret that kids can be manipulated and impressed easily. People constantly try to find a niche that they can blend into, to try and become part of an organization or affiliation to obtain a sense of belonging. People are always evaluating other's evaluations of ourselves, whether you want to admit it or not.

Sports figures as role models can be easily related to. Whether it be the well documented "rags-to-riches" story or the dedication of a sport to a fallen relative or family member, people look to sports to relax and get through rough times.

When I was younger I was a rabid basketball fan. I thought Michael Jordan could do no wrong. At times, I even thought he was a god. I saw the shot Jordan hit on Craig Ehlo in the 1989 Playoffs and I was mesmerized. 

Maybe it was because I didn't know better but, I tried my hardest to immitate him. I joined a basketball program at one of my local high school's and practiced my heart out. I didn't do that well, but never-the-less the impact of Jordan's performances left its mark on me.

Now, I see that Jordan has become a multi-billionare and has been linked to several bad gambling habits. He's rich and powerful but has a tendency to abuse that power. Not exactly what I would call an excellent role model.

Let us take a look at another sport, baseball. This rapidly became my next obsession after I saw Mark McGwire's historic home run chase with Sammy Sosa in the summer of 1998.

"Chicks dig the long ball."

I distinctly remember hearing pitcher Greg Maddux poignantly state during an ESPN commercial during this era. I was caught up in the whole show that was baseball. I started to keep my eye on the Cardinals as was quickly an Albert Pujols fan when he busted onto the scene in 2001.

During my high school years, sports were a great way to connect with other people. I quickly heightened my sense of sports knowledge and surrounded myself in it. As someone who wasn't that popular, it allowed me to connect during a time of extreme alienation.

Several years later the steroids scandal rocked the MLB to its core and Mark McGwire was at the center of it. McGwire was one of the players that brought me over to baseball, he was one of my role models. As I sat there and watched him squirm and avoid the issues, my heart sank.

I still loved the game of baseball, but I again let myself think that someone I admired could do no wrong. McGwire is now widely considered one of the most tainted players in baseball. Not making the first ballot for the Hall of Fame was, at best, a message. At worst, it could be a long time before he ever gets into Cooperstown.

To bring this full circle, I'm a huge Atlanta Falcons fan. Again, I saw the '98 NFC Championship game that sent Atlanta into the super bowl. It was a great experience because it once again connected me other people at my high school.

When Michael Vick burst onto the scene I couldn't believe my eyes. The man was lightning quick and seemed to defy gravity itself. As I progressed into college, I once again turned to sports as a way of meeting and connecting with people I'd never known.

Living in metro-Atlanta, the topic quickly focused on Michael Vick and the Falcons. Everyone was wondering how the young Virginia Tech star would do in the NFL. I began to attach myself now to the Falcons as they came to prominence.

I distinctly remember watching the 2002 Divisional Playoffs when Vick and the Falcons defeated the Packers to end their undefeated playoff streak at Lambeau Field. The stage was now set for me to become a full fledged Falcons fan.

All of that came crashing down in 2007 with his eventual conviction on dog-fighting charges. I once again had placed my admiration into someone who was convicted of a disgusting and horrible crime.

Today's headlines are even worse. With Adam Jones, Brandon Marshall, Larry Johnson, Plaxico Burress and many others dominating the sporting headlines with run-ins with police.

As someone who has placed admiration into sports heroes, I say this to you. Pick your role models cautiously. Sports can be a blessing and a curse. They can make you feel on top of the world and just as easily break your heart. 

To me, the REAL role models are the people that make the everyday difference. The teachers, professors, parents, armed forces, etc. I still love sports with a passion, it is why I write these stories here on Bleacher Report.

The purpose here is to know when to take sports so far. It's a great tool for connecting with people and to make lasting relationships as I have learned. However, know that athletes don't always measure up as role models.