Athletes are not role models

Zach Davis

When news broke of Tiger Woods’ affairs, I gritted my teeth and prepared to hear lots of people who should know better mouth a very tired fallacy. Sure enough: From all sides, I heard a rising chorus castigating Tiger for abrogating his sacred trust as a role model. Please.
There is a definite line between admiration and emulation. It is possible to respect an athlete’s ability without needing or wanting to live according to that athlete’s set of values. The American public seems to understand this better than most pundits believe.
Michael Jordan’s gambling problem didn’t create an uptick in gambling issues. Michael Vick’s arrest for running a dogfighting ring hasn’t inspired folks to take up the pastime. Leonard Little killed a woman because he was driving with a blood alcohol level of .19, but DWI and DUI rates have been dropping for the past 20 years. And while it’s still admittedly early in the game, I see no trend of horny guys ditching their marriage vows … la Tiger Woods.
Ah, but I was just talking about grown-ups. Grown-ups are supposed to know better — it’s the kids who suffer when famous people act naughty, right? Pundits trot out this old save-the-children pathos whenever their arguments are light on the logos — remember the attack ad panicking about Barack Obama’s sinister kindergarten sex ed. agenda?
I read an article worrying about a group of young kids who played golf with their local parks & rec. instead of gangbanging. They all cited Tiger as their inspiration to take up the sport. Are they going to exchange their golf clubs for Glocks now that Tiger gets a big red A emblazoned on his next Masters jacket? No, that’s ridiculous — it’s his ability to hit a golf ball into the next time zone they want to achieve, not his notoriety.
Kids aren’t nearly as dumb as most adults seem to think. They can see the mountains of grief athletes get for their transgressions — is any sensible kid going to want to emulate that?
Charles Barkley famously said, “I’m not a role model … Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” He’s dead right. When it comes to youngsters’ moral growth, the onus is on parents. Young children begin developing their value systems by aping and obeying parents and other close adult figures.
Some of these values last kids their entire lives; others are revised with age and acquired wisdom. An athlete’s public persona, available only through the media, is just not intimate or omnipresent enough to influence any child’s development. If those golf kids ever do get caught doing drive-bys, look to their parents. That’s where the issue started.
Of course, things are never that straightforward. I’m reminded of the steroids issue that has trickled from the pros all the way down to middle and high schools. There’s also increasing evidence that the macho expectation about football players returning to the field soon after receiving a concussion is causing lasting damage in players at all levels, but especially in high school, where the equipment is cheaper and the medical staff is overwhelmed or nonexistent.
These are both cases where pro athletes are setting bad examples that younger kids are emulating. However, these athletes are guilty more of contributing to a harmful worldview than personally leading kids to the Dark Side; people will always look to gain illicit advantages, and boys will always be boys.
So let’s scale back the Tiger bashing. The man made a big mistake — we all do. But he didn’t let us down, and he didn’t harm our children. He gets paid to hit small, white balls into holes in the ground, and we love watching him do that. Our moral codes are ours to figure out, not his — and it’s our job, not his, to show our kids how to be good human beings.