Fallen Idols

Why professional athletes make bad role models

UPDATE Since publishing this article, more sporting ‘heroes’ , with impeccable timing, have gone on a rampage. Or, more likely, a keener post-Armstrong media scrutiny in a gold-rush manner has dug up more nuggets of scandal for the headlines. See: AFL/NRL drug scandal, Australian men’s swim team culture, widespread football matchfixing and of course the OJ Simpson-esque Oscar Pistorius trial.

Lance Armstrong On Podium

To many, Lance Armstrong’s confession meant the world had lost another hero… but what really makes a hero in the first place?

The Bible warned us not to worship false idols. I’m not religious and I realise the ancient tome is pretty kooky if read literally, but I will admit that sometimes the bedrock philosophy is solid enough to stand on today. The term ‘false idols’ as carved into Moses’ tablets may have literally meant other gods or faiths, whose worship would presumably result in a bolt of lightning to the eyesocket. Metaphorically, however, it could mean the gratuitous praise of things that offer no soulful fulfilment; to kneel at the altar of the gods of superficially: materialism, vainglory and – shudder – celebrity. It could and should be interpreted as a simple warning. Beware whom or what you put on your personal pedestal, the place where you derive your own values. Don’t be so easily spellbound by those curious forces that make fame and success such seductive attributes in others. Don’t be so quick to worship, for example, certain individuals who captivate the world by overcoming adversity and soaring to unequalled heights of triumph… and then reveal 15 years later that they lied and were all hopped up on goofballs the entire time… The. Entire. Time.

Lance Armstrong

The truth hurts.

You know who I’m super-subtly referring to here: Lance Armstrong, the disgraced American cyclist who finally confessed his career-long doping sins before Oprah Winfrey and many millions of viewers around the globe. Twelve years of accusations and two years of US federal prosecution couldn’t budge him, but two hours on the couch with Oprah had the skeletons hurtling from the closet. For almost the entirety of his professional career, Armstrong aggressively denied persistent allegations that he ever cheated. The world believed him, and those few who doubted were non-believing, heathen naysayers. But, in June 2012, an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Association sensationally found him guilty of using and distributing performance-enhancing drugs and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. It rocked the world to its molten core. Until then, he was not only a prodigy on two wheels but one of the world’s most inspirational figures, particularly to cancer sufferers, his countrymen, and other athletes. He was the shining beacon desperately needed by a sport choked by the sinister fog of controversy. When the awful truth finally passed though the same lips that passionately denied allegations for 14-odd years, it sent the world spiralling into a sea of disillusionment Armstrong’s revelation murdered the infallible sportsman icon, and his confession was a eulogy for the death of all things honourable.

His downfall pulled immense strain on the already-brittle tether between ‘professional athlete’ and ‘role-model’. The same questions arose – should athletes be more responsible as role models? Are they role models? How can we make them more accountable for their actions? The most common argument in this troubled discourse rails along the concept of noblesse oblige; that by virtue of their elite status, athletes are duty-bound to behave honourably. That, however, is ridiculous. Professional sport is a self-serving career – athletes honour their contracts, not some high-minded sense of purpose. Former NBA star Charles Barkley once told reporters, “I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids”. He was dead right. No matter how famous or wealthy or influential an athlete becomes, they don’t assume any responsibility as some generic, universal role model.

The onus – and this is important – is on us. ‘Oh, but children look up to them…’ Forget the children. Children have children’s logic. Which is to say, none. Kids will idolise anyone they see on TV, so long as they have outstanding comedic fart timing or appear in a music video. The proper role model for a child is obviously the parental figure, as Mr Barkley rightly observed.

The point here is that even after we outgrow our childish frivolity, we still need role models to guide us. The people we, as adults, choose to idolise and perceive as role models are measures of our own intelligence and maturity. It’s for that reason sport stars can make pretty awful candidates.

A moral victory?

Now, let me be clear – I love sport. I follow virtually every code or discipline; I exchange my money for flags, scarves, hats, shirts and other crap bearing the crest of my favourite teams. My life is incomplete without my soccer, or tennis, or social touch footy. I’ll even throw on a netball bib when the opportunity presents itself. I revel in the highs and lows of competition and for that reason adore a great number of top athletes. I’m amazed and thrilled by their particular skills, their style, and – importantly – their dedication to the pursuit of their passion and their dreams. Names such Lionel Messi, Fernando Alonso and Roger Federer evoke images of greatness in my mind. Great athletes wow me and inspire me to try hard at what I do. So, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take inspiration from professional athletes and their achievements. But as people? Well, I don’t know them – but I can certainly imagine that on some level they are outstandingly selfish people, regardless of how humble and good-spirited they seem – because you must be selfish to succeed in sport. You’re a winner or you’re nothing, literally.

Sport turns success a hardcore fetish. In every corner, victory is obsessed over – from the competitors battling to win, to the flag-waving fans in the stands, to the punters feeding a billion-dollar gambling industry. At the end of the day, sport is no more than as an exhaustive series of numbers: records, rankings, time, distance, kilometres per hour, kilograms, goals, points, runs, baskets, medals, knock-outs, and so on to infinity. Success for an athlete is defined by the statistics beside their name. The ‘greats’ are the best, but does that mean the best are great?

Nobody achieves any form of greatness without incredible sacrifice. Sacrifice, though, can still be a selfish act. It just depends on who eventually is to reap the rewards. Athletes make tremendous sacrifices to their lives, socially, financially and emotionally – nobody simply breezes their way to a bag of gold medals and photo on the Weet-Bix tin. But single-minded dedication to the pursuit of glory is exactly that – single-minded. Elite athletes are certainly driven people, hard-working and ambitious people… but does that make them good people?

We decide the answer to those pseudo-rhetorical questions, but to do so properly we must understand there’s difference between admiring an achievement and admiring the person who achieved it. I believe that to truly hold someone in the highest esteem and call them a role-model, their achievements and their journey are no more important factors than the deepest motivations in their hearts. Ambitions and goals are good things but there’s a fine line between personal aspiration and self-aggrandising greed. You shouldn’t necessarily identify a role model by the loftiness of their success; but by the direction in which their moral compass points. Ambition to someone truly great, is not to set out to conquer the world, but to contribute to it in a meaningful way – be it pushing the boundaries of science; advocating social justice and change; or simply striving to make life somehow better for others. There’s an old Greek proverb that declares, ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in’. It’s not about environmentalism, but altruism. A cyclist doesn’t enter the Tour de France to impart some positive effect on the world of cycling – they pedal away for days desperate to be the dude on the podium in the yellow duds being smooched on either cheek by some French hotties.

Jocks and nerds

So, why do we gravitate towards the athletically-gifted members of our species? From the moment we introduce ourselves to this world as drool-soaked, babbling blank-slates, we observe and imitate with awe. Our simian DNA instructs us to learn by example. It begins with our parents, our siblings and then maybe our schoolyard friends, until eventually we achieve self-awareness of this vast world around us, and notice how it’s populated by regular people like us, and larger-than-life figures who inexplicably arouse our fascination. We take a real shine to people whose imprint on us speaks more for fantasy than practicality. We call them celebrities and channel a disproportionate amount of adoration to them. It’s a lamentable aspect of today’s society, as renowned historian Daniel Boorstin said many years ago:

“Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.” 

Forever heroic.

Forever heroic.

Sport stars are a unique brand of celebrity. We live vicariously through them to taste not just glamour, but glory. We cheer and scream from the grandstands and share the euphoria of victory, but just imagine being the one in the centre, showered in confetti and holding the trophy aloft while Emilio Estevez looks on proudly. Who wouldn’t want to rule the world for even a fleeting second? Athletes have been these heroes for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks portrayed them as physical superhumans, commemorating them in marble as they would Zeus or Apollo. Today is no different – we still call them gladiators, warriors and champions. We commemorate them in posters, advertisements, action figures, brands. So rousing is the unique, intoxicating drama of sport that it’s impossible not to admire the protagonists.

Is this a bad thing? Not really – there’s nothing wrong with passion, but the absurdity of an obsessive love of sport stars becomes apparent when the image of heroism is shattered by a shameful act.  How can you idolise someone whom you can’t respect as a person? They abandon you, leaving you disenchanted and tasting scowling, bitter betrayal. That’s the risk of idolising even the most pious superstars of sport. Four years ago, who’d have envisaged the names Woods and Armstrong to mean what they do now? Nobody. And that makes us the fools. If these titanic figures run afoul on their own iceberg-sized hubris, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to go down with the ship.

Ultimately, it’s our own fault if we go through life revering superficial qualities over true character. After all, it’s easy to bear witness to and be seduced by impressive feats of physicality or skill and overlook feats of intellect or compassion. How many Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, Victoria Cross medallists or Templeton Prize winners can you name? These are extraordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things – but, for obvious reasons you’ll be buggered to find posters of them to adorn your walls (with the possible exception 1961 Nobel prize-winner Rudolf Mossbauer – it wasn’t only gamma radiation that succumbed to the Mossbauer Effect, if you know what I mean).

The Winner Fakes All

The Lance Armstrong media maelstrom was so violent that it almost erased from our memories the past (and inevitable future) athletic falls from grace. The list is huge, but let’s start with Tiger Woods. The squeaky-clean, Disney-approved savant of golf, made a gigantic splash a few years back when it was revealed he was as proficient with infidelity as he was his fairway approaches. Neither his reputation nor his game has recovered since. Major League Baseball is still affected by the mid-2000’s Barry Bonds/Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa steroid saga, particularly whenever home-run records are mentioned… which in baseball is pretty much always. American quintuple gold medal sprinter, Marion Jones forfeited her glory in 2007 after she was also exposed as a big-time user of the juice. O.J Simpson… full-stop.

Even Tiger done bad.

Even Tiger done bad.

And no, it’s not just those from the U-S-A (‘U-S-A!’) either; in 2000, South African cricket legend Hansie Cronje was caught fixing matches, earning him a life ban. In 1994 Michael Schumacher won his first (of seven) world Formula One world championships by literally crashing his opponent into a wall – he somehow escaped punishment, but no-one ever forgot. Even the beautiful game has an ugly side. Diego Maradona – regarded by most as the world’s greatest footballer – eventually degenerated into a drug-addled lunatic; current England wonder striker Wayne Rooney was busted on separate occasions cheating on his wife with prostitutes, while former England skipper John Terry went and shagged his own teammate’s wife, taking a leaf from the playbook of former AFL great Wayne Carey. The less said about rugby players the better… The list goes on and remember, these are only the big fish who get caught. The amount unreported or unresolved anecdotal evidence of misconduct on or off the field is alarming. It’s systemic, from the lowly grades to the elite leagues, in team sports especially. This type of deviant behaviour is another topic unto itself, but goes to show that the egocentric mental conditioning for intense competition can manifest itself elsewhere, in less-savoury ways.

‘For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?’

Scandals or not, the world needs sport. In its many forms it creates camaraderie; it is a healthy pastime; a stimulating entertainment and at its very core, teaches good human values. But choose carefully to whom you bestow the word ‘hero’. That title carries a contradiction. Should it be someone whose desire is to conquer the world, or someone who wishes to make the world better for others? Athletes become heroes for themselves, not for us or any other. No famous athlete ever aspired to greatness so as to improve the lives of others. Save for the occasional sick kid in hospital.

So, is it really an omen that civilization is in freefall because a once-respected professional cyclist cheated in order to win, and lied for as long as he could get away with? Of course bloody not. It’s foolish to trust blindly the word of somebody who’s conditioned to covet success and victory above all else. Armstrong proved that eventually the yearning for glory can overpower all honourable intentions – like an Anakin Skywalker in lycra. There are better-qualified people in far less-glamorous circles who can shoulder the collective hopes for human dignity. Think about those risking their lives fighting for equality and freedom against oppression [Burmese woman]; think about those committed to expanding our understanding of the universe; think about the philanthropists, the thinkers, the real movers and shakers. Think even of everyday people who are just really freaking wonderful. Athletes, as remarkable and awe-inspiring as they can be, must do more than break records, sign autographs and do the odd charitable deed to deserve our deepest, sincerest admiration.

History teaches us that the most persevering judgement rests with one’s character. You can accumulate all the glory, all the wealth and all the adoration – but all it takes is one loose thread in your moral fibre and everything about you is unravelled. Athletes are humans and humans are prone to error. So many influences can draw an athlete to poor judgement, and it doesn’t necessarily make them objectively evil people, but that is why when we look to someone for true personal inspiration, it’s wise to look outside a world obsessed with ego and success. Instead, look to the impressively courageous, the awesomely intelligent or the inspirationally kind. It’s easier to find such people outside the world of sport. A good place to start is with another bit of advice carved into Moses’ tablet – honour thy father and thy mother.

Winning a wardrobe full of yellow jerseys is one mark of success; but being a good and dependable person is an even better one.


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