Should Athletes Be Role Models?

Todd Civin@https://twitter.com/toddcivin1Senior Writer IMay 11, 2009

In the wake of the 50-game suspension handed down to Major League Baseball star Manny Ramirez, children are left scratching their collective head trying to decide which professional athletes to look up to.

Barry Bonds posters once pinned to cork board walls have been torn down and replaced by Alex Rodriguez's poster, only to be torn down and replaced with Ramirez's, only to be torn down and....

The historic cover of Sports Illustrated showing Michael Phelps adorned with Beijing gold has been pulled from protective plastic sleeves and now yellows in the racks of doctors' offices from coast to coast. Phelps was photographed taking bong hits at a party last fall.

Plaxico Burress's championship New York Giants jersey sits next to Michael Vick's on clearance racks all around the country. Burress shot himself in the thigh at a Manhattan night club in November.

Vick is soon to be released to home confinement after serving the bulk of a 23-month sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. That came after he pleaded guilty to bankrolling a dogfighting operation at a home he owned in eastern Virginia.

Other sports stars with an L emblazoned on their Loser foreheads include:

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  • Former track star Marion Jones;
  • Baseball players including Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Joba Chamberlain;
  • Football players as Rae Carruth, Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, Donte Stallworth, and nearly a dozen police-record-holding members of the Cincinnati Bengals.

It is disturbing to think what must be going through the heads of young fans as their idols and role models appear more frequently on police blotters than on the sports pages. 

Nary a SportsCenter is aired without talk of arrests, drug use, womanizing, driving while intoxicated, domestic abuse, or other publicly unacceptable behavior.

Thrust into the public eye due to their immense talents, athletes often become the real American Idols while often lacking the moral character or the skill set that accompanies such a God-given gift.

I asked several people with backgrounds in sports where they feel the athlete's responsibility ends and the parent's responsibility as mentor, guide, and role model takes over.

Former MLB star Brian McRae feels that young athletes are bound to make mistakes.

"An 18-year-old kid is still 18 years old," explained McRae, whose dad, Hal, played and managed in the majors.

"They make a lot of mistakes. Our focus as parents should be to teach kids right from wrong and get them to understand that people are human and as such make mistakes no matter how much money they make.

"If parents are smart, they can teach their kids lessons after seeing what has gone on the past five or six years. I put more on the parents' shoulders. These are your kids."

Brian McRae, who works with young kids as general manager and director of player/coach development for the KC Sluggers baseball organization, had this to add.

"A role model should be the parent or family member that spends time with kids to help them understand what life is about. A teacher, a member of the church, someone who is around and in their life, not someone in a fantasy world."

David McCarty, who played 13 seasons for seven major league teams and was a member of the 2007 world champion Boston Red Sox, had this to say when asked if athletes realize what type of pressure is heaped upon their shoulders when entering the public eye.

"I remembered looking up to professional athletes when I was a kid, so I knew that kids would look up to me. I tried to be a role model, but I have always wondered why celebrities and athletes are placed on a pedestal.

"I think our society would be better served if kids looked up to doctors and teachers. In general, athletes and other celebrities aren’t good role models. Quite often athletes are not all that intelligent and why should we care what an actor thinks about some political issue?"

Ken Germano, a former member of the Italian national baseball team, a former Olympic athlete, and a former professional baseball player, knew what he had signed up for in terms of a becoming a child's role model.

"In Italy, because baseball was so special at the time, kids would knock on our door at 7:30 in the morning asking for an autograph, even if we got in at 4 a.m. from a road trip. They were so excited and cute. How could you refuse them and not want to help in any way you could?

"Everyone on the field is in position to be a role model, even the bullpen catcher," added Germano. "You put on the uniform, you should be ready for everything that comes with it and the consequences of your actions."

"This means that if you don’t understand something, you need to ask questions until you do," added Germano, who is principal at Wellness Fitness Consultants and is an expert on children's fitness.

Germano has empathy for parents but agrees that it is their responsibility to be the child's primary role model.

"I think it is much tougher being a parent (than an athlete) as your kids watch and see your every move, not just the big ones. In the end it comes down to the parents, not celebrity athletes."

Fellow Bleacher Report and Yankees writer Stephen Meyer feels that both athletes and parents are integral in the modeling of a child's behavior.

"The difference between being a celebrity and parent in terms of role-model attitude is that celebrities seem to have a more dominating presence over children," said Meyer, who writes under the name Heartbeat of the Bronx on the Bleacher Report as well as his own sports blog by the same name.

"While parents are ultimately working much harder to provide good examples and insight for their children, a celebrity can impact a child's actions immediately without any questions asked

"This puts a lot of pressure on celebrities to do the right thing, as the celebrities will not be there when kids ask "Why?" with their parents' lessons and advice."

Meyer added, "There is much less pressure on an 18-year-old to excel in the sport he has mastered than to survive combative warfare on foreign soil. If young men are deemed ready to risk their lives while wielding firearms, they are certainly ready to field a ground ball or catch a pass.

"The celebrity comes with the territory of the profession, and a player must take the bad with the good. Whether it is a free ride to a respected university or a seven-figure contract, athletic celebrities are given immense benefits for their skill."

Germano added, "It is unreasonable to put this type of expectation on a young athlete unless the proper mentoring and oversight is in place. Take LeBron James and his transition from teenager to superstar, for example. There's a kid who has an exemplary demeanor and attitude and can handle being a star and a role model."

Todd Civin is a free-lance writer who writes for the Bleacher Report. Feel free to contact him at toddcivin1@aim.com with story leads or suggestions.

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