Delusional role-model routine just another breathless wheeze

Once athletes leave the playing field, they are no different to anyone else. Setting them up to be something they are not invites disappointment

Just because Paul O’Connell can bench-press a Toyota Corolla doesn’t mean he has any role in raising your kids. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Just because Paul O’Connell can bench-press a Toyota Corolla doesn’t mean he has any role in raising your kids. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Mon, Nov 11, 2013, 06:00

Maybe it’s a CAO cock-up but there doesn’t appear to be a form where one can sign up for role-model school, which is surprising because demand for role models appears to be exceeded only by a supply of people who feel themselves entitled to such a job description.

How does one break into this closed shop? ’Cos I got a lot to offer. If there’s modelling required in biliousness or weight gain, then call off the dogs right now. Let me in, and gimme a grant while you’re at it, which I promise I won’t take to any lap-dancing dive, honest.

Getting your lap sanded is apparently a financial line in the sand, or at least it was for one day last week when UK Sport threatened to cut off funding for any athlete that might be tempted to push their grant down a gyrating G-string. Not appropriate behaviour for sporting role models, don’t you know; both sexes though, so, right on, right?

Well, no. Within hours, the stupidity of cutting off funding on the basis of what athletes might choose to do in their spare time was so obvious, even some of Britain’s finest bureaucratic arse-coverers couldn’t stand over it.

No doubt some expensive legal suit pointed out to them that a system of judging people’s behaviour is already in place and it’s called the law. And punishing people for their leisure pursuits, no matter how iffy they might be, might result in hefty compensatory payouts if said iffiness is perfectly legal.


Unblemished reputation
But it was a reminder that while the law is fine for us ordinary proles, sporting figures continue to be held to a much higher account. There might not be a dotted line to sign on, but there is an unwritten rule that because someone might be excellent at kicking a ball, or running quickly, or riding a horse, their private life should, preferably, also be a paradigm of modest virtue and lip-quivering nobility.

Moreover, what’s remarkable is that so many not only tolerate this expectation but embrace it.

How many times have you heard prominent sports figures acknowledge their responsibility as role-models? And with a straight face too, like this heavy load has been imposed on them by some demanding God of probity possessed of impeccable character judgment. The sane acknowledgement that being responsible for one’s life is challenge enough seems to get lost in the fog of self-regard that goes into believing you are worthy of being an example to everyone else also.

And it’s not even their fault all the time. The public buys into the role-model thing big time. And because we do, so does government, in their own tacit admission that the idea of anyone in a position of actual power behaving in a reasonable, and intelligent manner is off the radar.

And it’s ridiculous. The entire concept of role model is so childish, it makes one want to shout, grow up! Just because Paul O’Connell can bench-press a Toyota Corolla doesn’t mean he has any role in raising your kids. And expecting him to play ball in such a role is infantile. When it comes to rugby, yes; in terms of anything else, grow up!

The irony is that those sports figures who have actually changed perceptions in a wide range of important issues, and who have performed a genuine public service in terms of their honesty, are also usually the ones only too well aware of the hostage-to-fortune dangers of setting yourself up as a moral example once the final whistle has blown.


Absence of depth
But this doesn’t stop so many others enthusiastically buying into the notion of setting an example, not just in terms of what they’re good at, but in terms of their private lives too, something that shows a lack of self-awareness as regrettable as the seeming requirement from sporting officialdom that they perform such a role is unfair.

As a rule, when it comes to plenty of those precariously perched on top of the role-model dunghill, the more determinedly saintly the public image, the gimpier the private reality can be.

It would be easy to go all “Lance” and “Tiger” and “OJ” right now but really, such examples are the spectaculars. Plump for other names, and much closer to home too; those who mightn’t be blatantly cheating by ingesting vast amounts of performance-enhancing drugs but who’ve no problem saying one thing and doing another.

And really the problem ultimately rests with anyone expecting anything other than ordinary humanity from someone just because they can run fast or hit a ball hard. It’s an affectation we choose to buy into, just as the outrage we choose to indulge in when someone slips from Olympian heights of decorum is often out of all proportion to the supposed offence.

Yes, children mimic their heroes but pinning blame to some remote figure just because they are unable or unwilling to live up to a particular moral standard allows those in charge of those same children to duck their responsibilities.

Once athletes leave the playing field, they are no different to anyone else. Setting them up to be something they are not invites disappointment, just as some athletes setting themselves up should invite derision. As for suits outraged at the idea of going to skin clubs? Really! And there was me thinking such places must be full of tracksuits.

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