Categorized | Women in Sports

Model Behavior

The Chip Hilton series by Clair Bee portrayed the protagonist and athletes as upstanding citizens.

Falling for the athletic ideal


Tiger Woods seemed to do everything right. He arrived on the national stage at a young age and never seemed bothered by the hype or pressure. He had a close relationship with his parents, and later he had a beautiful, loving wife. He had two healthy children. He was a supreme athlete, playing golf at a level last seen when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were dominating the game. Woods’s sponsors were reputable and respectable. He had a charity foundation that encouraged and supported young people in their educational pursuits. He was adored by men and women, children and adults, alike.

Then came his fall from supreme-being status. It was a torrential downpour of women and sordid details.

If there ever was a case study for why skepticism should be part of selecting any athlete as a role model, the Tiger Woods scandal was the perfect example. As so many athletes before him – Babe Ruth (alcohol, womanizing), O.J. Simpson (convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping) and Alex Rodriguez (infidelity, performance enhancing drugs), among many others – Woods proved that athletic talent does not make an individual infallible in terms of human error and its consequences.

And yet, tomorrow, next week and into the foreseeable future, boys and girls, as well as men and women will point to professional athletes as their role models, heroes and inspiration.

Many athletes sign the dotted line for multi-million-dollar contracts and endorsements, bringing with it publicity and media attention. Somewhere in the contract is a mandate for upstanding behavior, also known as the “conduct unbecoming” clause.

“It certainly comes with being a professional athlete,” says Doug Glanville, a former Major League Baseball player and current analyst and columnist for ESPN and The New York Times. “I think the challenging part is you develop as a young man coming up through the pro ranks and you don’t necessarily recognize where it changes for you.”

Dr. David Yukelson, a sports psychologist as Penn State, is firm in his opinion.

“The visibility that you have today versus 20 or 30 years ago, with the Internet and ESPN, is very different, but I firmly believe that athletes are role models,” he says. “But they’re people, so they’re vulnerable to life’s daily struggles, so to speak. That said, they have a responsibility to handle themselves with integrity and pride.”

In the current media climate, it certainly seems that the percentage of athletes behaving badly versus those signing endless autographs and visiting sick children in the hospital is skewed in the wrong direction. If every non-game story or sports feature in the sports pages were considered, it would seem that the nature of sports and its participants are toxic. It certainly presents a question: Is this a generation of perpetual philanderers and deviants?

“Not necessarily,” says Jason Fry, a columnist for “But that’s the nature of news. Millions of children go down the street and go to school, and millions of children return home, the one who doesn’t, that’s news.”

Dr. Harry Edwards, a professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, says that public expectation for athletes to behave well “comes with the territory. No question that athletes occupy a place and a space that is particularly alluring to young people. As long as they’re in the spotlight they’re going to be held accountable for the impact of their behavior, and the impact success and failure have on that image.”

Former NBA star Charles Barkley, now a broadcaster and commentator, strongly opposed the concept of athletes as role models. In a 1993 Nike commercial he said: “I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Where and when did the idea of an athlete as an upstanding citizen and contributor to the community enter the American consciousness? Some sports historians point to the influence of the English in the 1800s and their attitudes about sports as a vehicle for fair play. As English influence on American society began to wane at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, a pair of fictional sports characters emerged in the U.S.: Frank Merriwell and Chip Hilton. Created by Gilbert Patten, Merriwell was an accomplished athlete at Yale who went around solving mysteries, first appearing in magazines in the late 1800s into the early 1900s. Hilton came years later in the late 1940s. The blond-haired, blue-eyed male athlete was the protagonist in a series of sports-based books by Hall of Fame basketball coach Clair Bee of Long Island University. Hilton almost always hit a homerun, scored the winning basket or the winning touchdown while leading an exemplary life off the field. Merriwell and Hilton, as well as characters from the sports novels of John R. Tunis demonstrated admirable traits that were impressed on young readers.

An award-winning writer at Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum grew up in awe of the Hilton series. He later wrote a feature about Hilton and got to meet Bee. And yet, McCallum also refutes the athletes’ role beyond sports.

“I don’t think so at all,” he said, of whether athletes are role models. “I raised two sons, I would never tell them that they were. I think the idea of an absolute role model is kind of ridiculous. I think what you do is take bits and pieces from people. I don’t see any reason why an athlete would be more of a role model than a teacher or anyone else.”

It seems that in so many instances over the past few years, athletes have ultimately disappointed fans and viewers. Nearly every Herculean effort is followed by what seems a more disheartening bit of news or accusations about PEDs (Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Lance Armstrong) and character flaws (Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, Woods). And yet, fans continue to care. Even after the Woods scandal, in his first tournament back, playing in the Masters at Augusta National, ESPN had a 47 percent increase in viewers for the first round from the previous year.

The reality is that athletes are going to be noticed. “What they do is superhuman, it’s what we cannot do,” says Fry. “People are … going to be in awe.”

Even if the media wanted to realign their focus and to report only on the good that was being done by athletes, it wouldn’t be possible. The speed and impact of the Internet and social networking sites are such that in many cases, anyone with a cell phone and a camera can scoop the legitimate journalists, especially in the cases of athletes who act poorly.

“The fish bowl that everyone always talks about, the fish bowl is now in high-def,” says Selena Roberts, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and one of the writers who proved that Alex Rodriguez was using steroids. “So everything you do is going to be visible to a different degree than it has ever been before.”

No amount of negative coverage or complaining from the fans is going to change whether a player wants to have an affair, or get in a bar fight or beat his or her spouse. The impetus has to come from the player and the culture around that player.

“Players that don’t understand that it’s a different world and that you can actually have an impact, that sort of denial is not positive,” Glanville says. “I think players should recognize the position they’re in. That doesn’t mean you have to be Mr. Perfect all of the time, but it does mean that you should realize that what you do has meaning.”

As Roberts says, “You always have a choice, you have a choice if you’re an NFL player to play in the NFL and sign a contract. Your choice is I want to be famous, I want to have all the money. You can’t say I don’t want the accountability.”

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