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 vnrlifestyle 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 becham100 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 Insult_2_Injury 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_arya 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.