Home > History, Society > Athletes are not perfect heroes

Athletes are not perfect heroes

20120608-195155.jpgA scandal involving an athlete is a common thing in these days of media saturation and near-instant dispersal of news. This past week, some Australian athletes have been criticised for posing for a photograph whilst toting guns, with some calling for their outright removal from the Australian Olympic Team.

Other scandals involving athletes involve a variety of moral failings, from AFL stars with a weakness for drugs, cyclists involved in doping, athletes involved in scuffles outside pubs and even rape scandals involving large groups of football players. Every time one of these scandals comes to light, the result is the same – a media flurry, a loss of sponsorships, a slap on the wrist and a look of contrition in front of the cameras as the athlete in question issues what is surely deeply felt, regretful and morally convicted apology to the Australian people.

One might argue that this is necessary because these athletes are role models to millions of Australian children, who look upon them as unto the demi-gods and heroes of myth and legend. A moral failing on the part of their heroes will surely serve enable the same reprehensible behaviour in these kids. Something must be done, surely.

I think that this is unfair on the athletes, regardless of how odious or obnoxious their actions off the field may be.

Children are taught to emulate their “sporting heroes” in part because in order to reach their level of excellence, an athlete must have worked hard, conquered obstacles, made sacrifices and gone above and beyond the norm in their pursuit of glory. It takes bravery, determination, discipline and industriousness – all fine and admirable qualities that will allow the child possessing them to succeed and excel in their own lives. Sport and competition can help to develop these qualities in a person to their benefit.

The problem lies in which moral virtues sport and competition do not help to develop. Empathy, temperance, honesty, loyalty, humility, generosity, patience, respect and tolerance are decidedly neglected in the incentive structure set up by the culture of sport. Excelling in these virtues will not give you any advantage in the field and so, absent strong moral influences touting these elsewhere in an athlete’s life, they will merely be dismissed or neglected, absent of value in the chase for glory.

To be sure, the latter are all civilising virtues, utterly necessary in every individual for the smooth functioning of a modern society, but useless in a society that values strength, in one form or another, over peace. The alternative to having these virtues is the kind of dog-eat-dog mayhem, poverty and violence you might have seen in Dark Age Europe or pre-war Berlin.

Why then, do people become so indignant when the occasional athlete says or does something offensive, ignorant, violent or self-destructive? Do the civilising virtues become conflated with the competitive virtues in the form of some kind of idealised hero in people’s minds? Are athletes not allowed human moral failings?

The fact is that we expect far too much from athletes. When you are only rewarded for winning, it’s bound to hone your behaviour toward that direction.

Take your average football star. He has likely played football his whole life and been among the most talented boys in every team he was a part of. Perhaps he was always especially big, strong or quick for his age while growing up.

When he reached his teenage years, his talents were recognised by his peers, by his coaches and teachers. His ability led to his being admired and popular while under the auspices of his parents.

Recruited out of high school, his life out of home became about football. He lived, trained and played with other talented athletes with a very similar story. When he succeeds at making the big time, he is suddenly rich, famous and the subject of fawning and adulation.

To expect any behaviour from him but that of an entitled teenage boy is unreasonable. After all, apart from football, he has never had a full time job or dealt with other adults as anything but a celebrity. Yes, he has earned his place on the team through grit and determined effort, but he has lived a sheltered life and hasn’t earned anything else by normal means. Is it any wonder then, that he might get up to mischief or violate the rules of normal, accepted behaviour?

I’m not saying that athletes (or artists, singers and actors, for that matter) shouldn’t be heroes, but I am saying that they should not be the only heroes, especially for children. Perhaps this is something we should teach them – that human beings make mistakes, that nobody, not even heroes are perfect, that we all have our failings.

Alas, that sort of cultural change is impossible without a great concerted effort. Perhaps we can make an effort instead, to glorify other kinds of heroes to children, heroes who can fill those moral gaps that sporting heroes cannot (and should not). Scientists, philosophers, political activists, writers, charity workers, philanthropists and so forth may not get the attention the sports stars get, though maybe they should.

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