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Should star athletes be role models?

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Athletic ability and integrity

It's been a decade and a half since Charles Barkley, the former NBA star, famously said, "I am not a role model." I both agree and disagree with that statement, and it's become a more and more complex issue to address as my son has become a huge sports fan. With recent controversies involving sports stars, such as Tiger Woods, this issue has become a big one in our house.

Family Watching Sports on TVPerhaps, in light of recent events (ahem, Tiger Woods), it's become something you have thought about, too. A sports star that previously had a stellar reputation - someone many looked up to as an example of excellence and perseverance and more - has, uh, fallen. What do you tell your kids?

Role model - or not

I've watched over the years with some concern how sports stars become role models in spite of themselves. They seem almost never to choose that role - they were going for athletic excellence, not necessarily moral excellence - but definitely had it thrust upon them. Sure, their perseverance, drive, and singular focus may be qualities to which to aspire, but they only make up part of a person. It seems like popular culture is as much to blame, confusing those portions of a personality with the person as a whole. The cult of personality is a complicated beast.

At the same time, a star athlete is in the public eye, and there needs to be some recognition of this bigger issue. Whether they like it or not, being a star athlete does come with some responsibility! People - and especially kids - are watching. It can be a lot of pressure for some of these athletes that are barely adults themselves, but it's reality. Fame and fortune does not mean one can act with impunity - but it doesn't mean you have to be perfect all the time either.

We're all flawed

The bottom line is, we're all flawed, imperfect beings. Every last one of us. We all make mistakes, some big, some small, but most of us don't have it reported on the evening news. I won't and don't excuse certain of these mistakes, but I do try to recognize the bigger picture. Humanity, in all it's fallible glory, is beautiful and not so beautiful all at once.

Make a distinction

To this end, I've made a concerted effort with my kids to separate athletic role model qualities from life role model qualities; sometimes they intersect, and sometimes they don't. I've encouraged them to look to many different kinds of people, both popular figures and people we know, as role models for different elements of their lives. There is no single, total role model for my kids.

Learning from mistakes

As this latest sports star scandal has unfolded, I've talked to my kids about all of this - age appropriately, of course. We talk about how one can admire a sports star for their athletic ability, but perhaps need to look elsewhere for bigger life lessons. We've talked about how we're all imperfect, and doing the best we can - and how some mistakes are bigger than others. We've talked about human tendencies and media and everything that plays into it.

We can still admire sports stars, but keeping that admiration realistic and grounded will be better for all of us (sports stars included!).

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