Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Footballers As Role Models

Another day in Bristol; more coffee and a little more snow…

It’s at times like these that my mind wanders and on this occasion it has wandered onto the recent publicity surrounding the private lives of footballers. It’s strange that it should do so because I really have very little interest in such matters but given recent events and the publicity surrounding John Terry and Ashley Cole it has been a hard subject to ignore because it has certainly exercised the great voices of the press and other media. “It’s an outrage!!” they thunder. “What sort of role models are they for our kids to look up to?”

I take great exception to this. Why should we even expect or hope that they are role models at all? I suppose a case could be made for them re their ability as footballers given that they both play for a leading club and represent England as first choice regulars and to be fair I don’t think that they have ever let anybody down in that regard. They are both extremely proficient defenders and given that defenders get sent off quite often they seem to be reasonably clean in that respect too. John Terry is the only one I can remember being sent off at all and even then only once. There’s probably others but they do not stick in my mind.

I don’t even want to criticise their conduct. As far as I am aware the latest hooha has surrounded events in their personal lives and these are, basically, nobody’s business other than their own and that of the others directly involved.

I don’t think either has broken any laws and yet they are both currently being vilified by the media which has in turn led them to be derided by opposing fans on the terraces when they have played.

The root cause of this seems to be glee in the travails that have befallen them because they are deemed to be far too highly paid. Well if that is why they are disliked then that’s fine and up to the individual passing that judgement but passing that off as “they have let The Nation down; they are role models, y’know…” is projecting on to them a responsibility that they have not sought or earned and which is neither desired or deserved by them.

That isn’t to say that sportsmen cannot or are not role models in some cases but those cases are few and far between. Those who do reach that elevated status do so by virtue of either a single act or a lifetime’s actions but even then they many of those concerned offer contradictions.

Let me consider 2 different men from 2 different sports: Ian Botham and Paolo Di Canio.

Botham first. Ian Botham was, arguably, the greatest cricketer of his era. Definitely the best all-rounder. His deeds with bat, ball and in the field were/are legendary and he rose to the elevated and esteemed position of captain of England’s cricket team. He was simply brilliant and he was widely idolised for his talents. Since then he has raised money, lots of money, via his various sponsored walks, towards leukaemia research. He is an exemplary role model except…

There had to be an “except” coming up didn’t there? Except there was, shall I say, a “colourful” personal life which included a ban from cricket for smoking marijuana, various questionable comments made to the press and his abject failure as a captain. He was a brilliant sportsman and one who obviously cares deeply about an important and worthy issue but to point at him as a role model would leave you open to criticism. He is no saint but then again he has never claimed to be. Why would anybody even try force beatitude upon him?

Paolo Di Canio next. A good footballer. Not brilliant but very, very good and he has enjoyed a successful career. He has done 3 things which stick in my mind and define him in many ways as a footballer; one of them good and 2 of them bad. The good one was catching the ball when it was crossed to him. It sounds like an odd thing to do and he was smack bang in front of an open goal, and hence as certain as could be to score, when he did so. Why did he do it? Because the goalkeeper was injured and needed treatment. A goal in those circumstances meant nothing to him and his sense of morality over-rode the desire to score. It is one of the very few instances where a modern era sportsman has respected the ancient traditions that under-pin sporting contest and he rejected the easy, undeserved and instant “result”. He deserves huge respect and praise for so doing.

There is bad stuff though. His politics are more than a little questionable; he happily describes himself as a fascist and has given the stiff-armed salute to fans on the pitch. He is another who is no angel and he was banned for a lengthy period for pushing over a referee who had just penalised him. I can’t remember what the offence was or whether he was booked or sent off or not but I remember the push and the ref falling and the lengthy ban which followed his inevitable dismissal when it came.

The point here is obvious; despite considerable personal prowess at their chosen sport and some creditable higher ethical qualities, either considered or instinctive, neither would be acclaimed as a perfect role model but in this day of minute and endless media scrutiny who justifiably could be?

So why is this role model stuff foisted upon these people? Surely it is those who demand that these people meet these unwritten and ill-defined criteria are the ones who have the problem here. It is even more ironic for our tabloid newspapers to portray themselves as moral guardians when they have been guilty of far worse in the past and will be again in the future.

I suppose it is no surprise that they so happily whip-up howls of moral outrage because it successfully plays to the mob mentality and sells copy for them but the agenda they set serves themselves and nobody else at all and especially not those who might be unfortunate to get caught in the path of the ethical hurricane that the redtops spin through no doing of their own.

This isn’t even a new thing. It was identified back in the ‘70s when Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull sang onThick As A Brick:

so where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday and where were all the sportsmen who always pulled you through?

…and later by Paul Simon when he sang:

who’ll be my role model now that my role model has gone?

These people are built up by others and are expected to meet impossibly high ideals imposed upon them by others with no regard to the target of those impositions or the likely ability to meet up to those expectations. We should be neither surprised nor disappointed should they let us down in the end.


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