Do we deserve better from our sporting ‘heroes’?

Lionel Messi….. Roger Federer….. Tiger Woods….. LeBron James…..

Some of the world’s most recognisable faces. Recognisable because they’re really, really, really good at kicking or throwing a ball, or very, very good at hitting a ball with a stick.

Many of these people have been kicking, throwing and hitting balls since they were very young and have got so good at it that millionaires are willing to pay them lots of money to continue doing it, and we, the people, are willing to pay sometimes extraordinary amounts to watch them.

So the other day, I was trawling through my twitter feed and I came across a post from ex-NBA basketball player, John Amaechi, with a link to a video of some of the world’s greatest sports stars; heroes I suppose many people would call them. Stars like Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, and, dare I even mention, Lance Armstrong.


“Notice how many are embroiled in chaos, tragedy, or disgrace. We deserve better”, wrote Amaechi
, and to a certain extent, I completely agree that we deserve better from our sports stars. They’re role models to thousands, millions of children and adults worldwide. People look up to them and they have a responsibility to behave in a manner befitting their position, right? We, the people, deserve better….. right?

Or maybe we actually get exactly what we deserve?

There’s something about the culture surrounding sport, the culture that we’ve created, that must be at least partly responsible for some of the bad behaviour that we so often see from our sporting heroes. Let’s take football (soccer) as an example.

Football players live in a world that is completely outside of reality, and we let them do it. Athletes are signed to extremely lucrative contracts, sometimes at fairly young ages. Even a player earning £1000 per week is earning pretty much twice the average annual UK salary.

Young and rich is a dangerous combination, but if you add a complete lack of consequences into the  mix, that’s when you can have real problems.

We have a tendency to protect our young athletes from the consequences of their actions. In football, players repeatedly gang up on referees, and scream and shout in their faces if they disagree with a decision… or if they just haven’t screamed at anyone for a few minutes. But it’s okay… because it’s sport. It’s passed off as youthful exuberance and passion for the game.

Violent outbursts on the pitch are described as “moments of madness.” But it’s okay… because it’s sport. Now I’m pretty sure if I stamped on someone’s balls at work and then said “oh sorry, I lost my head, it was a moment of madness”, I’d be looking for a new job — and would probably find it quite hard to get one. We constantly accept this behaviour so readily as part of sport, when we just wouldn’t accept it in any other arena.


The sanctions that are imposed for “bad behaviour” are also laughable. This week, Liverpool FC striker, Luis Suarez, decided to bite an opposing player on the arm. I do not know why. Suarez was handed a 10-match ban, yet Liverpool said that they were “shocked and disappointed” at the decision. Shocked and disappointed?

Again, if I bit one of my students, I think I’d probably be looking at a bit more than a 10-lecture ban…  and would be overjoyed if that was the only sanction!

Dear Liverpool FC, you are not helping by making statements liked this (note this is the same Liverpool FC that defended the same player last season when he was charged with racially abusing another player… well done Liverpool FC).

So why is this such a problem? Suarez has been punished, so can’t we just forget about it and move on? Well it’s a problem because it’s a slap on the wrist for what amounts to ABH, and this is not a great message to send to our youth. If you’re really good at kicking a ball, just say sorry and everything will be fine. You can scream and shout at referees but it’s okay, because that’s just part of the game and “boys will be boys”.

What a load of crap! Sporting organisations and coaches do a pretty good job of protecting players from the consequences of their actions, or defending them when they step out of line. There are other, arguably bigger, issues.

The media also plays a role in why we shouldn’t necessarily be shocked when our sports stars fall. A much more extreme and sinister example comes from the recent case of two high-school football (American Football) players in Steubenville, Ohio. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were found guilty of raping a 16 year old girl, yet the story portrayed in the media was one of “two young men with such promising careers” having to deal with the fact that their lives had been ruined.

This frankly disgusting news report from CNN  (seriously, watch it!) is  indicative of a culture in which our young, talented athletes are defended and excused for even the most violent and abhorrent of acts… because they’re good at sport. It’s also indicative of a culture that says violence against women is okay, but that’s a whole other story that I won’t get into here.

Choose your role models carefully

Now I’m not suggesting for a second that these individuals aren’t fully responsible for their own actions, that Luis Suarez doesn’t need to grow up, or that all athletes behave badly! And I’m certainly not suggesting that such acts of violence should be expected or are ‘deserved’ as a result of the sporting culture that athletes have grown up in.

But I guess what I am saying is that we could do more to make sure that young athletes are forced to accept the consequences of their actions, that they are shown how sport should be played, and that maybe this might influence some of the choices that they make.

Coaches and sport organisations.

Stop defending your athletes when they fall out of line! As I’ve already said, this isn’t helping the athlete, and it’s sending a terrible message to those watching. Not to go on about football again, but is there any reason why we can’t give a player an immediate yellow card for swearing at the referee? So we might end up playing 8 vs. 7 a couple of times while players adjust, but I think the message would get through pretty damn quickly!

I don’t understand why this is such a ridiculous suggestion. In basketball it’s an automatic technical foul. In rugby…. well it just doesn’t happen in rugby…  it’s okay in football, only because we say it’s okay. Maybe if our young athletes saw that it was unacceptable at the top level, they wouldn’t mimic this behaviour on the school playing field, while growing up in a culture that says it’s okay because it’s sport.

Coaches, especially our youth coaches, have a real responsibility to help their athletes develop personally, as well as professionally. In a recent poll carried out by Marylebone Cricket Club, three quarters of the children surveyed thought a team-mate would cheat to win if they knew they could get away with it. Based on the results, MCC and the cricket charity Chance to Shine, will be giving sportsmanship lessons to 400,000 children. We need more of this.

I could write about this all day, but this post is getting a bit too long so I’m going to summarise here with some things to consider.

  • Perhaps we expect too much. Some athletes deliberately set themselves up to be role models (David Beckham does a fine job, for example). But not all athletes do, and not all are comfortable in the role. So maybe we shouldn’t expect too much from them just because they’re good at sport.
  • Parents, you have an influence over the role models your children adopt. Help your kids make the right choices.
  • Coaches, make sure you take responsibility for your athletes’ personal development. Winning isn’t everything, so help your athletes develop a focus on improving their skills, enjoying sport, and not biting each other because… I still don’t know why.
  • Finally, it’s important to remember that the vast, vast majority of athletes behave like true professionals, are excellent role models, and should perhaps be applauded for keeping their heads in the sometimes crazy world of professional sport. But if we can help even one athlete make better choices through our actions as coaches, parents, managers, fans, we probably should.

  3 comments for “Do we deserve better from our sporting ‘heroes’?

  1. April 25, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Nice article and i totally agree that silly outbursts hinder the development of the athlete and the sport.

    From a coaching perspective it takes time for athletes to understand that there are consequences for there actions (pos & neg) how that effects personal development. That decisions made under pressure ‘loop back’ to impacting on their ability to stay 100% focused on skill development. An Athletes career is short, leaving a small window for development. Add a negative culture and you have a pathway that breeds athletes that don’t develop, leading to frustration, poor skills and silly outbursts!

    I enjoy reading your articles!!! thanks

  2. Jim Cherrington
    April 26, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Here, here!

    The problem is certainly a complex one. However, from a cultural perspective the issues you allude to in this blog (i.e racism, violence and cheating) stem from – nay, are encouraged by, a neo-liberal society which priviledges rampant individualism, selfishness and the spectacularisation of insitutional deviance. As far as the latter is concerned, much of the blame can be placed on the media, who tend to oversimplify the severity of the acts in question and turn them into consumable soap operas, complete with plots, villains and heroes. For example, during the Rio-Ferdinand ‘race row’, the focus, and much of the subsequent media analysis was placed on Rio-Ferdinand not wearing the ‘kick it out t-shirt’, which shifted the attention away from the John Terry’s xenophic language and re-focussed it something far more palatable for the millions of excitable watchers. Likewise, in the aftermath of the Luis Suarez case the media quickly lost interest in the implications of Suarez’s comments, but lost no time encouraging an atmosphere of suspense around the subsequent ‘will they/ won’t they?’ handshake. What this also does is it conveniently removes the attention, and therefore the honus away from the football clubs and governing bodies (who invest very little in player welfare/local communities and have extremely vague policies on discrimination) whose responsibility it is to dea with such incidents, and refocusses it on the behaviour of individual players. Arguably the best example of this in professional football is George Best – the first of a new generation of footballers who was ostricised because of behaviour off the pitch. However, what was often overlooked was the fact that Best, who was from a humble, working class background, was never taught (by his club or any regulatory body) how to deal with the fame and fortune that accompanied his new and emerging career and was therefore only acting (as most of us do) the only way he knew how. The same could be said for Mario Balotelli who, despite what the media intimate, was not in some way naturally or physiologically pre-wired to be aggressive/impulsive, but whose behaviour was probably conditionned by the fact that he was oprhaned at the age of 14 and spent the majority of his lifefending himself. Naturally, when you give a bloke like this £100,000 a week without telling him how to use this money responsibility, shit is definitely going to get interesting!

    Clearly then, there is every reason to suspicious about the claim that sports men/women provide us with excellent ‘role models’. However, far more concerning is the influence that these so called ‘role models’ are having on the next generation of athletes. Just last week, a report was published suggesting that the majority of children involved in school sport are willing to cheat in order to win/gain suggest, and if the above is but one example of the state of contemporary sport, then I’ve every reason to be believe this to be true. However, if these are the values that sport teaches us, and sport is seen to provide ‘lasting legacies’ for future generations, then I might be inclined to encourage my daughter to forge her moral compass elsewhere.

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