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 The furore has grown daily since Terry has had a ‘super-injunction’ at The High Court rescinded last Friday which was protecting him from the information being made public by the Sunday tabloid the News of the World.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.