Chris Gayle is greeted by fans at the ground

Chris Gayle: a walking, talking example of why sports players shouldn't be regarded as moral exemplars for kids

© Cricket Australia/Getty Images


Take me for example

Why do we expect sportspersons to be role models?

Simon Barnes |

Athletes are supposed to be role models. The more successful they are, the more important that aspect of their lives is supposed to be. The idea is that children admire people in sport, so it's an athlete's job to set them a good example.

The assumption behind this idea is that children do all they can to behave like the sport stars they admire. If athletes do good things, children will grow up to be better people. If they do bad things, children will grow up to be worse people.

People in sport have the field to themselves when it comes to being a role model. Young people also admire rock stars, but it's never suggested that they should be role models. As Billy Mack says in the film Love Actually: "Hiya kids. Here's an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star and they give you them for free!"

Young people also admire actors, models, superheroes, characters in films, great poets and disc jockeys, but only people in sport are required to be role models. Rock stars trash hotel rooms and take overdoses, actors strip naked, both go on cocaine binges and escape with little more than mild censure. But athletes who do the same things are accused of leading our children into the abyss.

Sport likes to think that it holds a high place in daily life because it represents certain moral virtues, and people in sport quite literally trade on that

"I'm not a role model," Charles Barkley, the former basketball star, said. "Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." This was a bold statement and the National Basketball Association hated it. It was not only heresy, it was rocking the commercial boat.

So what do you need to do to be a role model? Stand up for freedom? Save drowning children at the risk of your life? Help the poor, the sick and the needy? Be unflinchingly honest? Sacrifice yourself for others?

None of the above. All you have to do is keep a clean nose, never say anything controversial, never answer a straight question, and always thank team-mates, coaches, managers and (optional but useful) God. Add that to immense sporting success and you will get all the sponsorship and advertisement deals you can handle. You're a role model now and your aura of nobility rubs off on sponsors and advertisers. They look virtuous because they support and are supported by you. Sachin Tendulkar made his off-pitch millions because he made his clients look good.

Before his fall from grace, Hansie Cronje made a point of being seen as a good human being

Before his fall from grace, Hansie Cronje made a point of being seen as a good human being © Getty Images

So did Hansie Cronje, while the going was good. Cronje is still massively admired and massively loved in certain parts of South Africa. He had WWJD tattooed on his wrist, which stands for "What Would Jesus Do?" He was a great cricketer at a critical time for South Africa, as they were making their way back into international cricket after the apartheid years, and he was also conspicuously virtuous. He was a role model, and made rather a point of it. He set himself up to be admired as a cricketer and as a good human being. Then he was revealed as a match-fixer. So not just a bad man but a steaming hypocrite as well.

Sport makes a very decent third, after religion and politics, when it comes to production of people who espouse virtues they have no intention whatsoever of living by.

Example: Tiger Woods was a great champion with an ideal marriage to an ideal blonde who bore him ideal children. He was a sponsor's dream, because he was the perfect role model. And then, of course, he was revealed as a serial tumbler of cocktail waitresses, a liar and a hypocrite.

"I'm not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids" Former basketball star Charles Barkley

One more example if you have the stomach for it. Lance Armstrong set himself up as a man so virtuous that he could defeat testicular cancer. You could buy a wristband to celebrate that: "Live Strong," it said. He won the Tour de France seven times and was then revealed as a serial drug cheat, liar and hypocrite.

The notion that people who play sport should be role models is ludicrous. Parents are role models, not athletes. You don't take drugs because Jimi Hendrix did, you don't lay off them because Usain Bolt does. But it suits everybody in sport to assume otherwise. Sport likes to think that it holds a high place in daily life because it represents certain moral virtues, and people in sport quite literally trade on that. Sport's public virtuousness is cash in the bank.

It all goes back to Victorian education in England. Sport was supposed to train boys in the manly virtues needed to run the Empire. The ghost of that notion haunts sport to this day, making blandness a virtue, hypocrisy a daily necessity, and the role of a role model the path to a fortune.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books





  • POSTED BY Edwin on | February 2, 2017, 13:55 GMT

    The only role model(s) any child should have is their parent(s)....end of discussion.

  • POSTED BY Greg on | January 31, 2017, 5:20 GMT

    It's not a question of whether sportspeople should be or are expected to be role models, the fact is that they are. Children (mostly male) copy these people more than any other public figures. So naturally parents are edgy about which sport they might encourage their children to play. And thus the management of the various sports are equally anxious about presenting a good image to the parents. Parents will watch the same sport as their children, but not listen to the same music. So whilst some pop music stars may be role models,m it's often done without the parents consent. Parents need to be involved in a child's sport, but they don't gave to be involved in what they listen. Every public figure is potentially a role model, and parents consciously or subconsciously battle the images presented to their children. Sportsmen are some of the most prominent figures, and whether they like it or not, they are prominent role models.

  • POSTED BY Arun on | January 30, 2017, 19:01 GMT

    I've argued several times on Cricinfo message boards that professional cricket (or pro sport in general) is just entertainment, not superior to film, TV, or the circus. There's always banal responses that follow, such as "sport builds character, sportspersons are role-models, bring happiness to millions" etc. Amateur sport certainly builds character, esp team sports, and especially if you captain. Professional sport viewership, however, does nothing for the viewer's character.

    People like to believe that the work they do has a larger social impact than it actually does. Hollywood loves to think it influences society and changes it. An international cricketer would like to believe that he isn't just a flanneled fool chasing leather all day. Subcontinental cricketers are "honoured to play for their country", as if it were national service! At least a rodeo clown has no such pretenses. He accepts what cricketers and actors are trying to avoid acknowledging: they're just entertainment.

  • POSTED BY Steve on | January 30, 2017, 16:03 GMT

    Whether it's a sportsperson or an actor, they should be idolized and respected for their achievements on the field of their profession only. Hero worship beyond their performing arena is unwarranted. Unfortunately, that's what happens, mostly with impressionable youth. Success on the field doesn't translate to virtuosity in real life.

  • POSTED BY Master on | January 30, 2017, 15:09 GMT

    Those Rock stars, poets, actors are shirking their duties! Every adult is a role model, and successful, famous adults are the most role modelling of all. Your values don't come from your parents alone, they come from your teachers, your peers, your heroes...

  • POSTED BY Marius on | January 30, 2017, 12:56 GMT

    Nice article, but I don't think Hansie had a WWJD tattoo. He wore the wristband but I've never heard of him having the tattoo.

  • POSTED BY Michael on | January 30, 2017, 11:11 GMT

    It's strange thatpeople are still so attached to the Victorian myth that sport builds character, despite a total lack of evidence for it. In fact studies suggest that people who take part in competitive sport tend to be more selfish and less moral than those who don't.

    The myth endures partly because the media also collude in it. Most sports journalists are fans, not investigators. Political journalism has more than its share of sycophants and tribalists; but if the average journalist is given evidence that a large number of politicians are, say, taking bribes, he will be delighted at finding a story that will make his career. But if the average sports journalist sees evidence of corruption, he will start by hoping desperately that it isn't true. When it turns out that it is, he will write an anguished article asking "can we still have faith in sport?" And then he will forget about it. And when the next scandal comes along, he will write the same anguished article again.

  • POSTED BY hostin0823588 on | January 30, 2017, 10:37 GMT

    A brilliantly relevant assessment of an important issue. However, it just can't be expected that kids will stop looking up to their favourite athletes for inspiration, motivation and at times, even courage. I can speak for myself and I'm sure some would find it relatable. Growing up, Rahul Dravid was my biggest cricketing hero & it makes me so very glad that I made a right choice because today, he's my biggest off-the-field hero. Knowingly and unknowingly, I have learnt a lot just watchign him play & carry himself around in the limelight. I was a pathetic batter, but I still tried hanging on without getting out, just to tell myself that I've got the resolve. It would be fair to say that it's totally okay to have athletes or other celebrities as your role models - it's just important that you make good choices. A child can't possibly relate to or comprehend the great deeds of Gandhi or Mandela, but a hard-hitting Warner or Kohli may just give him silent courage.

  • POSTED BY xxxxx on | January 30, 2017, 10:35 GMT

    The "role model" shift of responsibility to athletes has always been a ridiculous cliché, but repeat it often enough and many will buy into it. Convenient excuse for individuals and parents who fail to take responsibility for their own actions though, and a variation on blaming the government or the weather.

  • POSTED BY Shane on | January 30, 2017, 7:18 GMT

    I couldn't agree more, and I've been banging that drum to anyone who cared to listen for many years. I think the habit of regarding sportsmen as role models is slightly lazy parenting, if you ask me. It's your job to teach your kids right from wrong. In the end, the silly modern sporting landscape means we lose people just because they are flawed (Jesse Ryder anyone? His mishandling was appalling). So often it seems that people hold these players to higher standards of behaviour than they expect of themselves. "Oh, that 22 year old guy went out and got drunk? For shame! Fire him!"

  • POSTED BY Noman Ahmad on | January 30, 2017, 6:52 GMT

    "with an ideal marriage to an ideal blonde", well spotted ;)

  • POSTED BY Hannes on | January 30, 2017, 6:22 GMT

    The only way I could possibly love this article any more than I already do is if it was longer and more detailed. Pitch-perfect assessment delivered in stark yet colorful prose. Brilliant.

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | January 30, 2017, 6:04 GMT

    Here's the thing though - cricket is known as a Gentleman's game and thus role model sticks. However in the last few decades I am seeing nothing Gentleman about this game. First remove the Gentleman tag and then remove the "role model". Keep gentleman and keep role model. Period.

  • POSTED BY Venkatasubramanian on | January 30, 2017, 5:54 GMT

    While we cannot impose the responsibility on the player, it would be good if the players themselves realize that sub-consciously kids and people of impressionable age are following their each action and replicate them. In that sense, I believe that a player should be aware of his/her behaviour in the field and on television.

  • POSTED BY Vaidyanathan on | January 30, 2017, 5:53 GMT

    No one cares whether you're a "role model" or not. But there is an expectation with you as well as everyone else, sportsperson or not, to behave yourself in public. When you don't you're just perpetuating the idea that it's ok to be an absolute douche in public. Just have good manners and be polite to people around you. Is that too much to ask for?

  • POSTED BY Mark on | January 30, 2017, 1:40 GMT

    Agree entirely. It's particularly bad when 20yr old sportspeople are meant to be "role models". Good grief-they are young and still learning how to live, yet get castigated as poor role models by the media if they stray off the rails.

  • POSTED BY vnr on | January 22, 2017, 17:40 GMT

    Role-modeling aside, what a sportperson needs to do every time is try to be the best at his or her chosen sport -- no mediocre player is considered a role model, because we dont want to promote sportsmanship along with mediocrity at the expense of athletic excellence. So a sensible player keeps the focus on achieving very high skill levels. Developing a 'clean' image is optional and probably useful, but not more important than being an excellent player. All sportspersons have a moral duty not to cheat at sport, but they certainly have no obligation to be anybody's role model!

  • POSTED BY ZEESHAN on | January 15, 2017, 11:58 GMT

    Well written. Couldn't agree more. Nobody says anything real anymore. It actually becomes sickening sometimes. "Training hard, believing in the process, respecting the game and all that stuff is being repeated on a loop.

  • POSTED BY Simon on | January 14, 2017, 1:38 GMT

    There's no doubt kids want to emulate their sporting hero as they are in awe of their on field abilities. The notion of sportsman as role model though, is perpetuated by the media, who want feed off that popularity by laying bare the sportsman's whole life. The problem then is for all sporting people, because the salacious element of the media then decide it's appropriate to compare every sportsman's life against a Bradman or Ali. The hypocrites you mentioned are their own enemies, however a kid from a poor education and low income who just happens to have sublime talent, is then targeted by the media for any indiscretion because he doesn't conform to some standard set by the media. Some of these sportsmen admit they would be embroiled in the endemic crime of their neighbourhood if not for the escape their talent afforded, yet the media treats them as though they should have miraculously changed their personalities the minute they were picked for a team!

  • POSTED BY jitesh on | January 13, 2017, 17:43 GMT

    I don't think football (soccer) players were ever held in such regard. May be the expectations are not the same across various sports. For cricket too, I feel it's more applicable to the previous generation (upto last decade) of cricketers- Sachin, Dravid, Kumble, Injamam, Gilchrist, Steve Waugh, etc.