Professional Athletes as Role Models: Is It Their Job?

Brandon LandContributor IApril 9, 2010

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 09:  Tiger Woods waits on the 17th green during the second round of the 2010 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 9, 2010 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The return of Tiger Woods to professional golf has brought about nearly as many questions as answers.

To this point, we know about the marital infidelity. We also know that Tiger will remain a force on the golf course.

What we do not know are the details from the past few months that may shed light on the man Tiger Woods was, yet not necessarily the man he is now—if you believe he has changed.

For example, none of us know what sort of therapy Woods took part in, nor do we know the exact details of the happenings on Thanksgiving evening outside Tiger’s home.

Quite frankly, none of that is our business.

Despite everything, it’s amazing that people are criticizing Tiger Woods for being a terrible role model.

While this may be true, was it really his job to begin with? Sure, Woods acknowledged letting his fans down by setting a poor example, but did he ever ask for the title of “role model”?

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One may argue that the job inherently comes with the territory, the money, and the fame.

While that is surely one way to look at it, I tend to move in the other direction: Why should any of us get fooled into following the lead of an athlete in the first place—or allowing our children to do so?

The fact is, given their track record as a whole, athletes—or celebrities in general—should be the last place we look for guidance, except in a rare circumstance.

Grant Hill is the perfect example of an athlete who feels the responsibility to be a role model.

Throughout his career, Hill has willingly taken on the pressure of having people look up to him. Not only has he shown a humility rarely seen in a modern professional athlete, his perseverance through the toughest times makes him a guy you just can’t help but like.

Hill, once the leading “candidate” to replace Michael Jordan as the face of the NBA, was on the right track to becoming a superstar.

He had once wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father (Calvin Hill, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys), but he was not allowed to play football until high school. By then, he no longer wanted to play the sport.

Instead, he paved his own path to the NBA, and was considered one of the best all-around players in the game.

Hill's success seemed virtually guaranteed, until an ankle injury nearly derailed his entire career. Then in 2003, he underwent a procedure to intentionally re-fracture his ankle, so it could be reset in alignment with the rest of his leg.

He developed a potentially fatal staph infection and was on intravenous antibiotics for six months. His career appeared to be in jeopardy, but he battled through it successfully.

Now, Hill is a contributing player for the Phoenix Suns. I would be tough to find better examples of perseverance in life—let alone professional sports.

In many ways, we as fans somehow demand to have it both ways.

We want the best athlete to be on the field. We want athletes who have the drive to win—and only to win. Tony Romo is often criticized for playing golf during the offseason.

As fans, we tend to demand these things from athletes, yet when news breaks that another athlete has tested positive for performance enhancers or has gotten arrested for various crimes, we act as if we are appalled. They are supposed to set a great example.

We demand more home runs from baseball players, yet act surprised and insulted when Alex Rodriguez comes clean.

We expect an excellence obtained by constant training, and we expect a single-minded focus on winning. Then we act surprised that somehow, these athletes—usually young people who have been handed millions of dollars—don’t act the way we want them to in public.

So the question remains: Should we really be entrusting professional athletes to help guide us through our lives?

I’m reminded of a 1993 Nike ad featuring Charles Barkley. At the time, Barkley was criticized for his outspoken opinion on the issue. During the 30-second ad, Barkley says the following:

“I am not a role model. I'm not paid to be a role model. I'm paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn't mean I should raise your kids.”

Despite the controversial nature of the message, I’m not entirely sure Barkley was wrong on this one.

The daily news is filled with stories about athletes such as Adam “Pacman” Jones, the poor choices of Ben Roethlisberger (whether charged with a crime or not), and attention-loving players such as Terrell Owens.

We cannot simply throw the responsibility of setting a good example into the laps of professional athletes. Athletes such as Grant Hill are such a rarity in modern sports. On average, athletes can’t be trusted to always send the right message.

Does it give them a right to live life recklessly?

Not necessarily. Maybe we should take it upon ourselves to set the right example for others, instead of looking for someone else to do it for us.

Brandon Land is the founder and sole writer for View from the Bench Sports, found at www.viewfromthebench.com


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