Woods, Terry and hero worship

I received an interesting email from Neil Burns, the Chief Executive of London County Cricket Club. With his permission, I would like to share this with you:

“I was thinking about our last conversation and the topic of Tiger Woods which we didn’t develop (for whatever reason) and I wondered if you would consider a blog entry on the issues of morality and the perspective of whether or not our top sportspeople need to be role models? Do we expect too much from them? Do we as a society feel it is the responsibility of these high profile people to be more than just very good at their sport?

We are experiencing a tabloid drama in UK at the moment with regard to the Chelsea and England football captain John Terry. Terry may be relieved of the captaincy by Fabio Capello by the end of the week for an alleged affair with the ex-girlfriend of a fellow England player Wayne Bridge who was a teammate at Chelsea until he moved to Manchester City around 12 months ago. The furore has grown daily since Terry has had a ‘super-injunction’ at The High Court rescinded last Friday which was protecting him from the information being made public by the Sunday tabloid the News of the World.

The influence of sports stars on society is significant and the increase in global television exposure has meant that the best and worst behaviours are transmitted into the living rooms of millions (and sometimes billions) of people. The fall from grace of the late Hansie Cronje hit South Africans hard. I remember the shock at the time he was exposed for his involvement with match-fixers and how many South Africans who adored him still believed him to be innocent (even to this day) despite evidence to the contrary. The refusal of those people to accept Hansie flaws suggests to me that some people have a need for hero-worship in their lives which television, image-makers and celebrity magazines help to build up and sustain so that the public has an opportunity to follow the ‘unreal’ lifestyle of people portrayed as cultural icons.

Mike Atherton (writing in The Times) today has dismissed the notion of sports stars needing to be role models. I have much respect for Mike as a journalist, broadcaster and as a man but I was surprised by his view. As a former England Cricket Captain, he must have experienced the responsibility that the role went beyond leading 10 other men to victory on the cricket field and also involved being the figurehead of the nation’s summer sport?

I feel sport is (needs to be) about more than money. I believe the power of sport can unite diverse communities globally, and also enhance a sense of national identity during global tournaments. Sport can be the vehicle to developing a better society and leading sportspeople can play major roles towards this worthy goal.

Alternatively, you may decide to ignore the gossip etc associated with this issue and think that writing a blog entry is not a good idea! However, I think current events have highlighted several fascinating moral and philosophical debates including the impact that power, money, status has on the young and talented sportspeople, and how it feeds the ego and eventually leads to self-destruction.

The need for role models in our society has never been greater. I believe that too much gets covered up by National Governing Bodies and Clubs to protect their iconic names and ensure that team results are the only priority. How wonderful it would be to have a vision and values led sports performance organization to inspire a better way …”

Unlike all other fields of endeavour, success in the entertainment world (of which sport is a part) comes at a young age.

There is a lot of hero-worship in the field of entertainment. The reason is that the life-style of an entertainer has such an appeal to the everyday person (and especially to youngsters who still have their dreams to fulfill). Who wouldn’t want to live a life of glamour, financial excessiveness, fast cars, power, alcohol and parties, sex, hotels and travel, outdoor activity as work, lots of free time every day, public interest and worship, ongoing media attention, always taken care of by coaches and medical support personnel (with no need to think for yourself)? And all of this at the tender age of say 20 years (which is at the height of one’s physical prowess). So given this scenario, which youngster in their right mind would ever want to aspire to become a teacher, fireman, nurse or postman?

Most youngsters have the fantasy to become a star – and the perceived value of this ‘star’ is determined by two interacting factors: money and media ‘spot-light’ (fame and attention). This fantasy is strongly supported by the parents since sport can be the avenue in which the child can have a better life. In most cases, this fantasy never becomes a reality since the youngster may not have the necessary discipline, dedication and talent that is required to make it in professional sport. As the child becomes an adult, this fantasy does not leave – it remains deep in the unconscious representing ‘the successful life that could have been’. So there is a deep yearning in the average man to actually live the life of the ‘superstar’. It is this fantasy that drives and intensifies the process of hero-worship.

I don’t think many elite athletes seriously consider their role as ‘role models’. The simple reason is that they tend to be emotionally immature and are usually too wrapped up in themselves and only have their own interests at heart. In plain language, they are self-centred and self-absorbed. To reach the top in elite sport, you need to be self-absorbed. The positive aspect of self-absorption is the ability to be single-minded and focused in achieving your goals. The negative aspect of self-absorption plays itself out as demanding and self-gratifying.

While on-the-field behaviours of the elite athlete are always under the microscope of the coach (where discipline, respect and hard-work apply in the structured environment), off-the-field behaviours are determined by the athletes own internal beliefs, values and needs. Since elite athletes are usually over-indulged, their fundamental need is to seek out pleasures when they are not at work training. One of the characteristics of an elite athlete that may contribute to further difficulties is the desire for instant gratification; always getting what they want, and when they want it.

It would be unfair to paint every elite athlete with the same brush. It would be unfair to compare sports that may be struggling for financial support (such as surfing the Big Waves at Dungeons) with sports such as golf, soccer, American football, Formula One racing that are so complexly inter-twined with commercial ventures and sponsorships who are themselves feeding off the name of the superstar.

The world of some professional sports may be becoming unhealthy and unbalanced, much in the same way as our financial systems are. From a financial viewpoint, it doesn’t make sense that a golf putt may reap the rewards of a $2 million payout for one individual when most of Africa is struggling to survive off a salary of less than $1 per person a day. Unhealthy systems are usually characterised by excess. This excess results in wastage. And over time, there is always the question of sustainability when resources are not carefully monitored and used. Life has a way of re-correction. Crisis is usually nature’s way to reveal the issue at hand, to stop self-defeating actions and to activate processes of change that are more in line with the healthy exchange of energy. In the case of Woods and Terry, the crisis has resulted in a closer examination of the totality of an elite athlete (embracing aspects of morality, ethics and fair play).

The media play a huge role in creating sporting heroes. They also are especially quick to report on the drama of the private off-the-field world of the athlete. It is impossible to separate the two worlds of the athlete. Maybe this is the lesson that all elite athletes need to embrace. Being a sporting hero is a 24/7 endeavour – that’s the price you may have to pay for the financial rewards that you receive.

Special thanks to my good friend, Giaco Angelini, a film director, for the use of his photograph taken at the Big Waves at Dungeons, August 2009.


4 thoughts on “Woods, Terry and hero worship

  1. Craig Wapnick

    HI Ken

    It has been a while since I have been able to read anything, I have been working flat-out on joBerg2c mountain bike race and sani2c. Hope you are well. Love your work.

    How many men do you know are in the situation where women throw themselves at them? If these critics were one of those unlucky men (some men think lucky) would you be able to resist the temptation on the road time and time again. I think most of the people that comment (other than the British tabloids who just want to sell newspapers) do not know what it is like to be a superstar – you very seldom hear of other superstars being critical of their peer’s behaviour. I think we should all just watch the game – appreciate the talent and leave the private lives of these individuals alone.

    A friend of mine said the other day how disspointed he was with Woods and now Jonty Rhodes – he said they were his heroes – I said why do you have hero’s? He was flawed he could not give me a good reason – he had been duped into thinking he needed a hero from the way he was brought up.

    The real hero is the family man who quietly goes about his business of helping his family and others.

    Feels good to share.

  2. Dear Ken

    Thank you for your insightful and educational contribution in response to my email about the relationship between top sportspeople and role models.

    I found your comment about excess and wastage in ‘unhealthy’ systems fascinating.

    Since we opened up this subject (last week), John Terry has since been stripped of the England football captaincy and is rumoured (and publicly reported) to have ‘paid off’ Vanessa Perroncel (the ex girlfriend of Terry’s England teammate, Wayne Bridge) to the tune of £400,000 to £750,000, depending on which Sunday newspaper one reads. If this is true, one wonders how such a sum could be used in a different and better way to contribute towards building a better society. How many thousands of charities are crying out for much-needed funds in these recessionary times?

    It seems to me that the issue of money and power is at the root of many of the problems which cause us humans to ‘lose our way’. If only the banks (mismanagement of risk), governments (unlawful wars and financial corruption), as well as our sporting organisations could provide a better lead, then I wonder if individuals would be less inclined to make poor decisions?

    With better leadership, would we be more outraged when individuals abuse their power? It seems that the systemic abuse of power and money by governments, institutions and powerful individuals means we can become aneasthetised to ‘scandal’ over time. Policing individual standards in local communities appears to become more challenging if the ‘policing body’ doesn’t enjoy a reputation for high standards themselves.

    With regard to the John Terry issue, I believe the FA needed to take a firm stance on his serial undermining of his position as England Captain. However, part of the problem for Fabio Capello and the FA, is a concern that there appeared to be few other candidates to replace Terry as Captain without possible scandal in their closets. Several of the England team have received tabloid exposure as a result of alleged infidelity and/or court cases for personal indiscretions in the past. The FA decided to leave the decision entirely for Capello – either because politically they wanted to remove themselves from the responsibility or maybe they wanted Capello to be seen to be ‘the big boss’ as he reputedly earns several millions of pounds a year as the titular head of England’s football team.

    The FA itself also had to deal with tabloid exposure a couple of years ago when a secretary (Faria Alam) at the FA had a relationship with the CEO (Mark Palios) and also the then England Manager (Sven Goran Eriksson). One wonders how much money gets spent on lawyers and PR specialists in top sport in such circumstances? The cost of cover-ups seem to be very expensive and in the case of ‘The Chilcot Enquiry’, heaven knows what this will cost the British taxpayer eventually, once they determine the lawfulness of Tony Blair’s decision to go to war. If the proper checks and balances are in place (and adhered to), then there will be fewer excesses and wastage of resources.

    From a sporting perspective, shouldn’t funds be directed into player development activities to ensure standards rise over time on and off the field?

    Best wishes, Neil

  3. Mary

    Re Tiger Woods, Terry and hero worship – my philosophy on life is to try not to judge others, live and let live, but on condition that NOBODY IS HURT in the process.

    Unfortunately with regards to the above topic of conversation, there is a huge price to pay for instant gratification. Once ‘busted’ this may result in ‘casualties’ along the way, with a lots of pain inflicted on all parties, also there is always a break of trust, a feeling of betrayal and actually I am not convinced that its worth it.

  4. Ken Jennings

    There is a lot of fantasy wrapped up in hero worship.

    Given your comments, I thought that it would be meaningful to examine the topic of a role-model in more detail. Parents are the most powerful role models, whether they think they are or not. Craig’s comment about the real hero being the family man who goes about helping those around him really resonates with me.

    If we can be role models in doing the simple things with LOVE in our everyday living, we will provide an ongoing reality and model for our children to base their actions and worldview on. Practising the philosophy of SPORT (which I expand on in my next article), will offer our children a solid anchor to hold onto as they embark on their own journeys in life.

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