When Aaron Hernandez was led from his home in North Attleboro in handcuffs, New England lost a lot more than a talented 23-year-old tight end. Patriots fans across the country watched in stunned silence as their former hero was led into a 7-foot-by-10-foot jail cell.
As fans, we connect to professional sports by indulging ourselves in the persona of celebrity athletes. With the amount of publicity dedicated to sports in this era, we find athletes more accessible than ever due to social media, allowing us to directly interact with these heroes in our everyday lives.
So how exactly are we supposed to separate our admiration of their skill sets on the playing field from our devotion and expectations of them as role models? Many athletes are symbolic leaders of the cities they play in, very much so including Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
Ortiz has had his fair share of ups and downs in his time in Boston when it comes to being a role model. It was revealed during the 2009 season that Ortiz tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, immediately being viewed as a cheater by baseball purists.
Yet Ortiz continued to play well for the Red Sox, and the perception of him as both an athlete and a person changed, as time, and a winning record, heals all wounds in sports.
As Ortiz led the Red Sox on the field with his explosive bat this past summer, he was also there to thank the city of Boston for their efforts in the capturing of the Boston Marathon bomber. His speech at Fenway Park included an infamous, uncensored message heard by just about anyone.
Then later in the year, Ortiz expressed extreme frustration after striking out in a game against the Baltimore Orioles. Ortiz vehemently disagreed with the home plate umpire about an earlier sequence, and then proceeded to use his bat to violently smash the dugout phone before being thrown out of the game. Amazingly, Ortiz was not suspended for his actions, and received just a small fine from the league.
While Hernandez was an extreme case of an athlete letting down his fans, it seems like more and more players across various sports are a few steps removed from the concept of being a role model.
Before late November of 2009, almost any young golfer would have felt comfortable calling Tiger Woods their role model. Woods was as successful as any other athlete before the sex scandal that eventually led to him admitting to having slept with as many as 121 women outside of his marriage. He still has the money and the success on the golf course in 2013, but the respect he once garnered is all but lost.
This past summer, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun was revealed to not only have cheated the game, but to have blatantly lied about his involvement with performance-enhancing drugs and the controversial Biogenesis clinic. As the face of the franchise, Braun let down Brewers fans and has little chance of restoring his stature as one of the all-around great players in the game.
Hall of Fame NBA great Charles Barkley stirred controversy when it came to the role of athletes as role models throughout his professional career.
“I think the media demands that athletes be role models,” Barkley said in an interview, “because there’s some jealousy involved. It’s as if they say, ‘This is a young black kid playing a game for a living and making all this money, so we’re going to make it tough on him’. And what they’re really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can’t become, because not many people can be like we are. Kids can’t be like Michael Jordan.”
Barkley was adamant in a Nike television ad that he does not believe he should be a role model to children, pushing for parents and teachers to be the role models in the lives of children. Nowhere in the contract of any professional athlete will you find a strict requirement to be a role model.
It’s hard to force anyone to live up to the unclear expectations that go along with being a role model, but there should still exist some room for all athletes to use common sense when they’re making decisions—on an off the playing field.
So what do you think? Should athletes be expected to act as role models in society, or should we lessen our expectations of those who continue to let us down?