Sunday’s wild NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers was a few elephants short of a circus. The game ended on an acrobatic, Barnum-and-Bailey-worthy pass deflection by Seattle’s Richard Sherman that led to an interception, but the real main attraction was still to come. In his postgame interview, Sherman made a complete clown of himself, leaving many fans wishing they had an unsportsmanlike conduct flag to throw his way.
The uproar over Sherman’s antics resulted in a flurry of coverage, making headlines on most major sports networks. This poor display of sportsmanship, though still appalling to most, reflects a growing trend in professional sports of bad role models finding themselves in the spotlight. Sherman’s case seems mild when compared to the example set by others such as Aaron Hernandez, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant and, most recently, Darren Sharper. The list of athletes who have cheated, doped and committed criminal acts continues to grow, and athletes seem to be getting more media attention for the bad examples they set than the good ones. This trend begs the question of whether, in this era of professional sports, athletes have any responsibility to be good role models, to set positive examples and to do the right thing.
There is a good argument to be made that sports are just another form of entertainment in our society. As such, the scandals, soap-opera-esque extramarital affairs, outlandish displays of unsportsmanlike conduct and general antics, both on and off the field, have some value as forms of entertainment. In the same way that we fixate on the Kardashians’ latest breakup, or Miley’s newest, entirely disturbing music video, we are drawn to watching the downfall of these athletes who seem to have it all.
Perhaps people enjoy athletes’ demises so much in the tradition of the pratfall effect, wherein seemingly über-humans expose a mortal flaw. It turns out that Tiger Woods cheats on his wife, Alex Rodriguez might not have been able to do hit all of those home runs without a little extra juice and even Michael Phelps has a few photos that he isn’t so proud of. These are the fans who will follow the Oscar Pistorius trial in its entirety come March, just to remind themselves that even those at the top can fall. They are likely to view professional athletes not as moral beings with responsibilities, but as actors in a dangerously entertaining drama.
It is hard to blame the media for giving special attention to these cases, which have some inherently interesting qualities to them. Where the blame must fall, if anywhere, is on the individuals responsible for these headlines. They are the ones whose names appear on the back of young fans’ jerseys, who represent the pinnacle of athletic prowess and dedication in our society and who have the status and respect of the masses necessary to be true role models.
One might ask what these athletes are role models of. In the most obvious sense, professional athletes are role models to millions of young children who dream of one day hitting the winning home run in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series, or standing beneath the confetti after a Super Bowl. To these kids, professional athletes can be examples of hope, the power of hard work and discipline, the value of truly investing in something, what it means to be a good teammate and the value of sport in its purest form. And yet, when kids turn on SportsCenter in the morning, they are increasingly likely to hear about alleged sexual assault charges or court hearings than any act of true sportsmanship.
This doesn’t just matter for kids, though, but for all of us. Sports have value as a cultural entity not just as entertainment, but as something much more important. It is hard to describe exactly the feeling one gets watching the Hoyts run a marathon together, or two entire college football teams let a little boy with leukemia score his very first touchdown, or hearing “Sweet Caroline” play in between innings at Yankee Stadium in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings. These are the extraordinary moments and individuals that remind us why we invest our hearts into sport.
I’m not saying that every professional athlete has the responsibility to achieve this standard, on or off the field. But they do have a responsibility to at least realize that, to many people, they represent more than just themselves. All it takes is a last-minute comeback, an impressive display of teamwork or a single play to reminds us how truly awesome sports can be. All we can ask of our athletes is to respect their role in something that is culturally and historically much larger than they will ever be, and hope that they can be good sports about it.