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Athletes as Role Models

by , 31st Oct 2014

Professional athletes demonstrate discipline, teamwork, and sportsmanship. 

The current NFL season has been mired in controversy. Last spring, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was charged for assaulting his fiancée. When video of the assault leaked online in September, Rice’s contract was terminated and he was suspended indefinitely from the NFL.  The League’s inept handling of the incident sparked widespread criticism of Commissioner Roger Goodell and fueled a national debate on athletes and domestic violence. NFL athletes aren’t the only ones who have come under closer scrutiny. In 2013, cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France medals for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.  This year, Olympic record-holding swimmer Michael Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. These scandals have tarnished the reputations of the athletes and their sports. Nonetheless, millions continue to watch sports on television and children still idolize their favorite athletes. But should children consider athletes as role models?

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The challenge is that athletes are ever-present. Athletes not only compete in nationally televised games, but they also endorse products and feature in popular video games. Every day, SportsCenter cycles recaps of top plays, player interviews, and matchup projections. Some athletes go on to host morning shows, write memoirs, and speak at graduations. The line between elite athlete and entertainer has never been so blurry.

The mass attention on competitors can have a positive impact. Professional athletes demonstrate discipline, teamwork, and sportsmanship. Each week, they impress us with their athleticism and desire to push the limits of human performance. The Olympics are perhaps the best example of athletic accomplishment. At the 2012 London Games, Usain Bolt won the 100m gold medal with an astonishing time of 9.63 seconds. Gymnast Gabby Douglas became the first African-American woman to win the all-around title. Misty-May Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings also earned their third consecutive gold in women’s beach volleyball. Every four years, athletes truly inspire us to reach for new heights and take pride in our nation.

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Many have used the global spotlight for good. Athletes often support charities or donate large portions of their salaries to worthy causes. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has donated over $10 million to support youths at risk. Soccer star Mia Hamm and Hall of Fame hockey player Mario Lemieux have both started foundations that fund cancer research. The Novak Djokovic Foundation highlights another example of a successful athlete who has used his influence and resources to improve the lives of others.

However, the media attention, endorsements, and high salaries can cause problems for many competitors. The limelight often exposes the character flaws and attitudes of these men and women. However, even when athletes make mistakes, it is still difficult for young children to distinguish athletic accomplishment from character. The longstanding glorification of athletes for their physical feats alone can be a disservice to the younger generation who need adults to model leadership and service.

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Children can look beyond the playing field for role models. Scores of scientists, teachers, and civil servants do not receive as much attention for their accomplishments but are dedicated to helping others around the world. The media needs to focus as much on the latest Nobel Prize winner as an NFL quarterback. Athletes can inspire children to stay active and healthy but, in the end, children should look up to their parents, grandparents, and mentors. They may not be able to dunk a basketball, but these adults model responsibility and commitment.  The reality is that top athletes come and go. World records are eclipsed and new champions are crowned each year. The true heroes invest in our everyday lives and inspire us to be our best.

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