In a world where athletes are products, actions do matter

Yesterday on an NPR segment, Frank Deford argued that we need to get over the fact that athletes aren’t good role models, and come to terms with the idea that role models can be positive or negative. If you’re scratching your head thinking, “What the hell are you talking about, Frank Deford??” then you’re not alone.

Deford says this in regard to the Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault scandal and how Ben is suspended for the first six games of the season because athletes “have to be held to a higher standard,” according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Deford says that the entire notion that we should look up to athletes is flawed to begin with, and these kind of sanctions don’t actually teach the athletes anything.

First, the idea that not all role models should be positive, and hence that it’s OK that some are negative, is ridiculous to say the least. The entire connotation of a role model is that it’s something positive — why on earth would you encourage people to mimic negative behavior? Calling a murderer or a rapist a “role model” immediately is repulsive, because you don’t want people to continue murdering and raping people.

So yeah Frank, I’d prefer that role models only be positive. To say otherwise is merely semantics and an attempt to create a loophole for athletes who want to commit criminal behavior. And it’s odd that Deford concedes, “OK, if they violate the statute law, fine, put them in the hoosegow,” especially considering that the celebrity and power of these athletes is a big reason why they don’t get slapped with criminal charges in many cases, or why they get lesser sentences.

Considering that Roethlisberger is rich and famous, and that sexual assaults often don’t make it to trial for a variety of reasons, I’d say Roethlisberger’s money was an easy way to keep him out of court and jail. The survivor doesn’t have to go through the often emotional and traumatizing process of a trial, and Ben doesn’t risk actually being convicted of a felony.

Does him not going to court change the fact that what he allegedly did was reprehensible? No. And it’s not like Tiger Woods, who Deford references, because adultery is not a crime. People don’t like it, but cheating on your wife is different than sexually assaulting or raping someone. Woods is apologizing not only because his morality is in question, but because he was marketed as a role model.

Roethlisberger, like all athletes, is inherently a role model because we have attached that stigma to athletes, which is something Deford is against. But not only are athletes valued for their talent, strength, determination, and ambition — they are role models because athletes today are sold as products. Think of how many athletes are spokespeople for clothes, shoes, drinks, food, etc. If athletes are like products, then of course you don’t want to be marketing bad products.

And to the American people, bad products are products that don’t fit into the moldable, marketable ideal that society holds for athletes. If this marketability didn’t exist, a lot of athletes — like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps — might not be as wealthy as they are because their sports without sponsorships don’t net close to what they make with these jobs. Like anything being sold to us, we aren’t buying unless we like what we see — and what American likes seeing someone who is going to sexually assault women?

I get that athletes might not want to be role models, but they are. It comes with the territory, and I don’t think it’s a revolutionary concept (did no athletes today have athletic role models when they were growing up?). And with more recognition comes more pressure to be a good product, but that recognition usually carries benefits like money and prestige. Deford asks:

Why, pray, of all people, are athletes, pretty much alone in our society, expected to be sweeter than the average angel? It is politicians and clergy and those maestros of finance on Wall Street who ought to be held to a higher standard.

No one’s asking athletes to be sweeter than the average angel — the average angel doesn’t go around sexually assaulting women! And politicians and clergy are both held to a higher accountability than average Americans. Why do you think the Vatican doesn’t want to turn its child molestation problem into a public affair? Why do you think political careers can be ruined by leaked information — see Larry Craig and John Edwards, to name a few.

Sure, sometimes people bounce back — Bill Clinton is still a beloved president despite having multiple extramarital affairs. My own former U.S. representative, Steve LaTourette, was caught have an affair and still is serving in office. Sometimes athletes do, too — Michael Vick was America’s enemy when he was convicted of dogfighting but then after his nearly two-year sentence, many fans were eager to cheer for him — but Deford is completely offbase is asserting that Americans only scrutinize athletes.

So yes, athletes in a very basic sense should only be judged based on their athletic ability. But then you add fans who will pay hundreds of dollars to see you play games and companies who will pay millions of dollars for you to market their products, and it’s about a lot more than how many touchdowns you can get. Athletes might be frustrated that they are scruntinized off the field, but sports is a business just like anything else, and athletes who sexually assault women are bad for business and for humankind in general.

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One Response to “In a world where athletes are products, actions do matter”

  1. Fame shouldn’t be the only criterion for being a role model « i, sandwich Says:

    […] athletes and other famous people are also viewed as role models. I’ve blogged before about athletes being role models and how in the sports world I think athletes are often bound by the endorsements and sponsorships […]

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