Star athletes don’t belong on pedestal

Freedom New Mexico

Just a few months after everybody was celebrating swimmer Michael Phelps for his Olympic feats, the world is abuzz over a photo of Phelps apparently inhaling from a water pipe that’s commonly used for marijuana.

Among the many debates are how this incident affects his status as a role model, and what message it sends to children.

It’s worth asking ourselves why we make such a fuss.

On obvious answer is that individuals, and society in general, hold up champions as role models. Children and even adults buy jerseys that look like sports heroes’ uniforms; they buy shoes and other items, often paying inflated prices, just because their favorite athlete endorses them. It’s just a curious fact of life.

Another, even more curious fact, is that people tend to project excellence in that person’s specialty into overall excellence as a person. But it’s unfair to those people, and to ourselves, to assume that they — or anybody — is perfect.

Ideally, media darlings, regardless of whether they are famous for sports, political, music or other achievements, recognize the attention that’s placed on them, and work hard to behave in a manner that is worth emulating. And to their credit many people do take their status as role models seriously, and live exemplary lives.

Others, however, bristle at the thought of having to behave a certain way just because people are watching. Outspoken basketball great Charles Barkley so famously rejected the idea of athletes as role models that it became the center of a Nike commercial. He put the onus on parents for teaching their children what behavior to emulate and which to avoid. “Athletes are not role models; parents are role models,” Barkley said. “Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Nobody’s perfect, and there’s certainly no shortage of public figures whose flaws are as well known as their accomplishments. Football great Bob Hayes was just elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite drug problems that plagued and shortened his life.

Perhaps the ideal response to this most recent example of a flawed hero is to explain to our children that everyone makes mistakes. Done correctly it might even motivate a young person to continue pursuing a dream despite difficulty and failure; after all, the heroes who stand at the summit of our dreams are just as human, just as prone to make mistakes.

Michael Phelps and others in his position didn’t ask for the attention, and their success usually reveals admirable qualities such as discipline and determination. Those characteristics are worth emulating; but every individual should learn what is right and what’s wrong, and accept that even our heroes are wrong at times.

That knowledge might at first seem sobering, but it’s also liberating, since it makes it clear that any one of us, as flawed as we are, can attain greatness with the right abilities, effort and motivation.