Opinion: Is being a role-model a responsibility or choice in professional sport?
Andre Gray's recent charge from the FA prompt's the question are sport stars good role-model's / Sky Sports

Opinion: Is being a role-model a responsibility or choice in professional sport?

Role-model's are considered to be people that influence people for greater things; but not often does a sport star get lavished with such praise, many see them as arrogant, egotistical characters that are care-free and strut around without a care in the world. But is it a choice or a responsibility in being a role-model?

Michael Stokoe

We know about celebrated athletes’ exemplary conduct in sport but, there is nothing intrinsic to athletic participation that merits the status of being a moral exemplar beyond that sport-specific role,” this was just one of the many quotes I found that suggested that athletes and sporting excellence is not linked to their moral behaviour off the field of play. But I must say, I disagree with Randolph Feezell’s assessment.

I believe, and I hope others do too that a professional sportsman/woman are some of the most privileged people on the planet, and what they do in their respective sport has a huge influence on people that follow and look to emulate their success.

In this day and age where youngsters are easily persuaded, and easily tempted to grace the wrong path, a role-model can appear from the most unlikely places, and from the most unlikely professions. Furthermore, I bet that if you asked many young people today who their heroes are, many of their heroes will be professional sports men and women.

You might be thinking at this juncture, why the article on role-models? Well quite honestly after reading into the recent events surrounding Burnley’s Andre Gray and his tweets and other misdemeanours, it was something that peaked my interest and coupled with my interest in UFC I thought there was something that could be written exploring this complicated and much maligned topic.

For professional sportsmen/women is being a ‘role-model’ a responsibility or choice?

It’s a grey area for many athletes in today’s professional climate, but is being a role-model a responsibility or a choice?

Charles Barkley, a retired NBA star who played for the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, and the Houston Rockets once said about the subject that: “I’m not paid to be a role-model, parents should be role-models.

It certainly unleashes a debate about whether sport stars are automatically regarded as a role-model because of their privileged position, or whether it is indeed down to the individual in how he or she acts in a way that might benefit or be of detriment to their fans.

I’m of the opinion that sport stars should be wary of their position in society, and that they should bear in mind that plenty of people will be looking to emulate them, especially the younger generation, and hence their actions should be in tune with that way of thought. But of course many don’t, but there are exceptions, and there are athletes that change and take their privileged position very seriously.

And one example of that is Phil Brooks (aka CM Punk) who will be making his debut in UFC next weekend. Many will know him from his time in WWE, but now that he is looking to make a career in the fight-game he has appeared much more in the mainmedia.

His story is quite fascinating; he had quite a troubled upbringing; but after finding the ‘straight edge’ lifestyle he committed his life to professional wrestling, but after getting disillusioned with wrestling he turned his attentions to UFC, much to the mockery of his peers.

Many think CM Punk will fail in the UFC, but for trying something completely the man should be applauded / MMAJunkie.com
Many think CM Punk will fail in the UFC, but for trying something completely the man should be applauded / MMAJunkie.com

But his views on being a ‘role-model’ is something that demonstrates perfectly why some stars feel that being a role-model is a choice.

“Well, I used to feel absolutely nothing. I still try to adhere to the Charles Barkley thing. I speed in my car, I text and drive. But when it comes to being confident and believing in yourself I think that’s an important thing to instil in people, especially in children, because I know just how much people around me used to discourage me when I was a kid, and instead of letting it discourage me I almost didn’t understand it. I said why is that everyone isn’t trying to help me instead of hinder me. So there is a little tinge of responsibility there, and I’d like to point out that even if your parents say you can’t do something, you can. You’ve just got to believe in yourself.” - CM Punk.

His journey and his personality are quite remarkable, and it’s not often people drastically change their profession; but win or lose next Saturday on his debut; CM Punk will gain a whole new load of fans.

Is being a role-model part and parcel of professional sport?

Now, I wanted to know what the true meaning of word ‘role-model’ was and this was what I found: “A person whose behaviour, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger children.

Of course the way people portray themselves to the younger generation is essential, but I wouldn’t limit role-models to just younger people. Any person, of any age can have role-models they look up to. From personal experience I have plenty of people I consider to be role-models, and some are close to home, i.e family members and others are either sport stars, or people in other professional fields.

But there is also this idea that a person has this label of ‘role-model’ thrust upon them because of what they have achieved in their respective sport or respective career; but I want to propose something different, something left-field.

It might just be me, I hope not, but it could well be. I not only look up to someone because of their achievement in a sporting context, don’t get me wrong somebody’s achievements are a big reason why people look to emulate them. But another facet I am extremely interested in is their ‘mental journey.

Let me elaborate on that, by ‘mental journey’ I mean how the athlete or person has got to the very top of thier chosen sport or field. I’m of the opinion that the mental side, particularly in sport is as much, or more important than the physical side. I’m not saying the mental side is everything, it’s not. But it’s a large part of what makes a truly successful sport star. Some stars have that mental edge, others don’t, and to me that is what separates the good from the great.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Muhammad Ali, Ronda Rousey, Luis Suarez, and Conor McGregor are sportsmen and women that I believe have that mental edge over their contemparies. For Ali it allowed him to reach the very pinnacle of boxing, and for all intent and purposes it allowed him to become that transcendent figure that was loved and adored by so many.

Ali is one of those figures that certainly transcends sport/ Thesource.com
Ali is one of those figures that certainly transcends sport/ Thesource.com

For the others their mental edge has allowed them to reach the very top in their chosen profession – of course they have the natural ability, but to me their mental mindset has outweighed that. And in my opinion a large part of their success is due to being able to cope with the rigours and pressures of professional sport.

As mentioned, I believe there are two facets of being a role-model: firstly you have to achieve something worthwhile to be able to have that kind of praise and recognition lavished on you, and secondly you need to have that strong mental mindset.  

Success is bred from a strong mental state, that’s the difference between the ‘great’ and the ‘good’

I think we can all agree that there are some exceptional sportsmen and women in the world today; they all have to be of high quality to be able to pursue their dreams at a professional standard. But what makes the truly ‘exceptional’ standout from the good? I feel it is their ability to be able to go to another level.

Somebody’s mental attributes might not necessarily come to the fore in team sports, but it is still vitally important. If you take Ronaldo and Messi for example, they are considered to the be the best of the best in football at the moment, and although they play for superb teams with other superb players – they must have something extra, because I don’t believe you get to the level of where they are without something extra.

Ronaldo has become one of the greatest football has seen, but what set's him apart is that drive to be the best / Goal.com
Ronaldo has become one of the greatest football has seen, but what set's him apart is that drive to be the best / Goal.com

Of course they both have immense natural ability, they practise to improve every day. But to me the reason why are at the top of the footballing temple is because they have that self-driven mental mindset that they will achieve whatever they want in their respective sport.

And that’s not just in football; you can look at many other examples of different sports where people are driven to be the absolute best they can be.

UFC fighters might not necessarily get the recognition they deserve, but many of them deserve to be lauded with the ‘role-model’ label

Some sport stars might not get the recognition they deserve purely based on the type of sport they are involved in, and UFC certainly fits into this mould. There is no doubting that the UFC is a brutal sport, which accommodates some of the most brutal athletes. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be considered as role-models.

The sport pricked my interest after reading Rousey’s autobiography ‘My fight, your fight’ and ever since I have followed the sport intently.

And I must say these fighters have earned my utmost respect. Not only do they put themselves in the position to get punched in the face for a living, but they also put their bodies through hell and high water, and not many sport stars do that. To me, that is precisely why they should be presented as people that could influence the younger generation to do greater things.

But what people miss is the attention to detail, the sacrifice, and the pain these fighters have to go through to be the best.

A parent might say that watching someone like McGregor or Nate Diaz, or Rousey punch another human being repeatedly in the face or the body is not really the type of person they want their son or daughter to aspire to be. But why can’t someone aspire to be like Rousey or McGregor? Why can’t someone aspire to be the greatest fighter on the planet?

Why can't a young girl look up to Rousey? She is one of the most influential female sport stars around / MMAJunkie.com
Why can't a young girl look up to Rousey? She is one of the most influential female sport stars around / MMAJunkie.com

UFC get’s a bad name, firstly because of the nature of the sport, and secondly because of the drug problems that surround the sport. But for someone to dismiss a fighter as not being a role-model is wrong. They have just the same entitlement to be classed as a role-model, as much as an influential politician or other sport star does.

Rousey, bought up an interesting stance when she was asked about the perceived ‘violence’ in MMA for a documentary.

"I think a lot of people that are ignorant about [MMA] think that it promotes violence, when it really is the most responsible outlet for it. It's a human instinct to fight, and if you try to suppress it entirely and put everyone in a bubble-wrapped society, that's when people end up going nuts and shooting movie theaters." - Ronda Rousey

I’ve used the example of McGregor a lot in this piece, but I’m going to use him again because I believe, despite all his trash talk, he  is someone that the younger generation can and, I feel, is relating to because of his drive to be one of the best ever in UFC.

From speaking to Pundit Arena’s Jack O’Toole who has followed McGregor closely you get a sense that the younger generation of Irish people are well behind the McGregor phenomena:

“I think McGregor gives a lot of hope and optimism to kids who may not come from a traditional sporting background here. I think his bravado and attitude is simply for his own self-interest, to maximise his own earnings. But from everything I've heard and from the people I've talked to it’s a front, he has a huge desire to help his teammates and is an approachable person away from the camera. I think he's essentially a role model because of the sacrifice and dedication he shows and I think that that often gets overlooked by his promotional persona.”

To get where McGregor has got to, you need to have something extra about you; his fights have shown that he has the natural ability to succeed. But what separates him to many others is his mindset to want to be the best both in and outside the octagon, and regardless of what people say he is an inspiring bloke that many fight-game fans, young and old look up to.

Ultimately at the end of the day it is not the athlete that decides if he or she is the role-model; societal pressures and outside influences might dictate how an athlete should act both in and outside of their respective sports. Academics might suggest that role-model's and professional sport are not intrinisically linked, that might be the case, but in my personal opinion athletes are some of the most privileged people on the planet and with that should come a little bit more responsibility.

But at the end of the day it will be the fans that will decide who to follow, who to inspire to be like, and who to emulate, and no-one else, but let's try to acknowledge that just because a particular sport might to be 'bloodthirsty' and 'violent' let's not judge the athletes in the same vein.