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Should athletes be role models?

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September 11, 2014

Throughout the years, we’ve had a lot of conversations centered around whether professional athletes should be considered role models. From Charles Barkley famously saying, “I am not a role model” to many examples of athletes being involved in criminal activity, there is a clear argument for moving to separate athletes from the idea of being a role model. But, many argue that the discussion is much more complicated than that. Athletes, they say, are going to be viewed as role models whether or not they choose to act like one, simply by virtue of their celebrity status.

There are plenty of examples for why professional athletes make terrible role models. Criminal behavior ranges from DUI’s and speeding tickets to murder, rape, and domestic violence. Integrity is questioned when players test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Irresponsible behavior and attitudes are pervasive. But I think the argument for why athletes are harmful in their role as ideals for society should be focused more around the culture of masculinity that is inherent in sports.

There is a clear connection between sports and masculinity. For one thing, there is an obvious difference in the way men’s sports and women’s sports are treated in the media and in society. It is clear from the amount of media attention different sports garner that men’s sports are valued at a higher level in our culture than women’s sports are. This makes a difference when we are discussing the way young men in particular are influenced by male sports icons. There is nearly continuous coverage of athletics on television, and when an individual athlete commits an act of violence, it is constantly talked about on news sites for days. The exposure young men have to their sports idols’ misdeeds can have a shaping effect on how they view those activities.

The connection between sports and masculinity is also shown in advertisements. Companies, trying to reach out to sports fans, often create ads that perpetuate gender stereotypes, and are generally sexist or misogynistic. A key component of many sports ads is including the athletes themselves in the process. If an athlete that happens to be viewed as a role model appears in an advertisement for deodorant, it may boost sales, but it also pushes the ideas of that commercial into the minds of young men watching. So if we’re talking about a certain smell making men irresistible to women, that brings along with it a certain level of entitlement that men have towards sexual activities with women. Also, many of these reinforce heteronormativity, which has strong ties to traditional masculinity as well.

Finally, masculinity is connected to sports as shown through official policies of punishing players involved in certain incidents. For example, a 2 game suspension for Ray Rice’s domestic violence case was less than suspensions are for drug-related activities or for illegal hits on the field. I’m not saying either of those other scenarios should not have policies of suspension, I’m saying that domestic violence isn’t treated as seriously because it is normalized in our culture. Since that time, the NFL has amended their policy, but the attitude shown toward the issue is personified in other cases as well. And this is not limited to professional sports, either. The Jameis Winston case shows that a player who accused of rape can still be popular enough around the NCAA that he still wins the Heisman Trophy, in spite of a pending case against him.

These attitudes toward violence, and particularly violence against women, are reinforced by our system of organized sports in this country and across the world. It says something that the way sports leagues and franchises, and even our own government, approach the issue of sexual violence is by saying, “Real men don’t hit women,” or “What if it were your mother/wife/daughter?” Both of these campaigns reinforce the gender norms of masculinity, and promote ownership of women by the men in their life.

Sports figures don’t have a choice of whether they are considered role models. But also, we need to see them as a product of a larger system that gives us traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. A sports icon can have some positive or negative effect as a role model, but the burden doesn’t fall squarely on their shoulders to teach our children. We need to find a way to make violence no longer “business as usual” when we are talking about sports. One of the ways we have the most effect on the future of gender roles is what we are teaching our children today. As a culture, we need work against the philosophy of violence in our sports that is influencing our youngest generation.


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