All athletes are role models

NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley had an abundance of disdain for the concept of athletes being role models.
The former great with the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns even authored the script and did the voice-over for a Nike commercial in the mid-1990s which said as much.
But, as I learned a long time ago, just because you say something doesn’t make it true.
For confirmation of that, start counting broken political promises over the past 10 years while I’ll start counting stars in a clear sky at midnight. I’ll bet I get done first.
Since competitive sports began, there’s been a tendency—right or wrong—to elevate athletes to the position of people to be admired, respected, and idolized.
I, myself, remember growing up in the small village of New Sarepta, Alta. and being a skinny grade-school kid (hard as that is to believe from looking at me now) who wasn’t a bad cross-country runner and basketball player.
But my athletic endeavours paled in comparative popularity to the exploits of the hockey players in my class, who received the lion’s share of adulation from not only the starry-eyed girls in our class, but myself and the community in general.
As I grew older and wiser, though, I discovered some of the hockey guys has some character traits that hardly were the stuff of heroes. I remember being dismayed these players weren’t the people I thought they were.
Thankfully, I have passed the time in my life where hero worship is a part of my social interaction (OK, if I ever meet Wayne Gretzky, I’ll probably act like some tongue-tied fanboy, I’ll admit it).
It is quite remarkable, though, to analyze the positive attention heaped upon those who can shoot a puck, run with a football, or smack a baseball with any proficiency at any level of sport.
I will be the first to stand up and say my work as a sports reporter helps contribute to that perspective, as putting the names of athletes in the newspaper for reader consumption is a big part of what I do in this job.
The fact is, though, that by competing on a public stage, any athlete is a role model to the people who follow their accomplishments—and they have to live their lives accordingly.
Those in the professional ranks are looked at by younger generations as someone they may strive to be like someday. But what are those younger generations to think when they hear the same news stories over and over again about those professionals being arrested for impaired driving, domestic assault, drug possession, and other crimes?
Of course, it’s a parent’s job to teach a child right from wrong, and be the prime good example for their child. But I don’t know too many people going out and buying a jersey of their favourite sports team and putting “Mom” or “Dad” on the back.
This year has seen one of the most vivid examples of an athlete celebrated by millions who ended up being an inspirational impostor. At one time, Lance Armstrong ruled the cycling world, winning seven-consecutive Tour de France titles while lending his backing to the LiveStrong campaign to fight cancer.
When the whispers began that perhaps he was illegally-enhancing his performance through blood doping and other means, I and many other didn’t want to believe the rumours.
When the whispers turned to roars, I still clung to the hope that Armstrong was just the target of jealous rivals and bitter cycling administrators.
Then the curtain was pulled back by Armstrong himself—but only when it was obvious he no longer could continue the charade as person after person made allegations that called his integrity into question.
There he sat unmasked as a cheater, liar, conspirator, and, in the eyes of many, a bully to those who dared opposed his grand scheme.
LiveStrong backpedalled away from Armstrong like Deion Sanders covering a wide receiver on a deep route. The rest of us were left to wonder how we could have allowed ourselves to be so blind to not see through Armstrong’s house of marked cards.
But the responsibility for proper behaviour on and off the field, or court or ice, doesn’t end at the professional level. Amateur athletes—be they high school football players, junior hockey players, adult soccer players, or any other sport participant—project a certain image during and outside of competition.
Whether they like it or not, their actions are more closely monitored than the average citizen. As such, they need to act accordingly and appropriately because they never can be certain who is watching.
They not only are representatives of their particular team or community, but of the world of sports itself. They cannot consider themselves above the law or beyond reproach just because of their athletic status.
A lack of understanding in that regard only can serve to reflect badly on not only themselves, but their team, their school or organization, and their community.
So, if you’re an athlete, do your utmost to always make the best impression in whatever you do.
That’s the only way everybody wins.