Athletes and Ethics: The Choice to be Role Models

Last Updated: 07 Dec 2022
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The merits and ethics of athletic scholarships, and the accountability athletes had to accept to conform to projected social norms is a contentious issue.

On one hand, the pressures athletes face depend on the nature of the various normative and actual notions of role models projected onto athletes by the relevant institutions, the branches of these institutions, and society at large. However, the pressures athletes face depend on the attitude of the athlete towards the concept of the ‘role model’, and how seriously the athlete takes subjective notions of public image  and civic virtue.

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The social and institutional versus athlete pressure/role model dynamic essentially hinge on whether athletes should be viewed as role models, the difficulty in being a role model, whether they should indeed be expected to be role models, or if athletes even have a choice in the matter.

Athletes and Ethics: Big Pressure for High School and College Athletes

A young boy enters the house in his favorite purple Lakers jersey. As he sat in front of the television, he sees his favorite basketball star, Kobe Bryant, arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting of a woman.  From the perspective of civic functionality, there are some strong views against the use of athletes as role models.

Citing the high profile example of Kobe Bryant, Brown (2005) contends that there can be a discrepancy between the public persona and private deeds of high profile professional athletes. Bryant’s case is instructive of cases where an athlete’s public good standing can be shattered in the light of public scrutiny. Whether or not there was truth to the allegations, did Bryant hold any responsibility to the public regarding the damage this has to his image? Either way, he did not have a choice.

Athletes as Role Models: A Perception of the Past

 At issue here was the view that to be a role model was defined by the contributive function made by a member of society. Doctors, police, firefighters and soldiers were apparently more intrinsically deserving of the social abstraction of “role model.” However, the philanthropic activity of athletes did not negate their supposed lack of social function outside of a sport (Brown, 2005).

The emergence of the celebrity status of athletes as role models of the youth may seem to be a product of mass media and marketing. To prove that this was not so, all puns aside, Mosher (1998) gave further credence to the image of sports people as role models.

A presentation of the athletes as role models in a historical and sociological context must be done to show the perception these sports people had for the longest time. The British amateurism in the sports of the 19th century, where amateurism and elitism worked hand in glove to exclude the working classes from any participation in certain sports that were the reserved for the “civilized gentlemen” of the ruling elite (Mosher, 1998).

Chivalry was the image of role models, as translated to the modern century America’s language, was both universally accepted and desirable. America, where improving one’s lot was the central pillar for its foundation, did not let amateurism find fertile ground in this self-proclaimed egalitarian nation.

Hence, with professionalism and the social mobility associated with it, came the desire of upstanding role models in sport inherited by concepts of chivalry in the Old World.

Going back further in time, the Greeks were seen to greatly influence how heroism was related to sports. During their time, sportsmen were regarded as heroes. Competition was something that was highly regarded and those who participated were regarded to be men who were above ordinary men (Boon, 2005).

The hero figure was someone who had physical strength, courage and an innate ability to confront dangerous circumstances without fear; most of these qualities were attributed to their Greek athletes as well as to their great warriors. A hero was the Greek’s version of the public’s role model, even if it the modern term was an understatement and less romanticized.

Athletes still held the same power, influence and impact that were given by history to sportsmen. They were ideally seen to transcend mediocrity and to prove themselves by exceptional acts and to serve as perfect examples because of their superior qualities (Boon, 2005). They were seen to dominate human action and to symbolize success and perfection, as well as the conquest of evil. Thus, they were seen to be men of good character because if they were not it would mean they were imperfect and mediocre.

Aside from the Greek correlation of sports and heroism, aside from physical development, how did sports become a tool to build character in the American perception? There was a time wherein sports was not even considered to be something good in American life as it was seen to be the root of gambling and everything that was un-Christian? How come it has now been regarded as an avenue of chivalry and gentlemanly behavior?

It was during when the Church attempted to regulate sports that it was seen to serve the purpose of character development for boy and girls (Mosher, 1998). Even basketball was created to promote teamwork, self-sacrifice, obedience, self-control as well as loyalty. The biggest factor that was seen to have implanted the idea that athletes must be role models was the Olympic movement (Mosher, 1998).

In the present, the analogy of comparing people of chivalry in the past to athlete role models of the present time was seen to be outdated. However, the fact that it was still existing seemed to provide the sense of intrigue as to where this concept came from and why it had survived for so long (Skidelsky, 2003).

In the 19th century, sportsmen accepted the idea that they had a special duty to behave well. Athletes were seen to be required to behave under the “proponents of ‘muscular Christianity’” as it was instilled in moral instruction of the sports (Skidelsky, 2003).

This created the belief that physical robustness was expectedly connected to moral purity, something that would be indubitable in the present world of sports. The public, at present, would be constantly bombarded with how athletes were not able to cope with the pressures and temptations of fame.

Unlike the requirement of the past, professional sports had ceased to require any form of moral or responsible behavior for these athletes to be successful (Glenarden, 1997). Possessing success seemed to be held by society to be more important than possessing good character, morals or ethical behavior.

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Athletes and Ethics: The Choice to be Role Models. (2016, Jun 05). Retrieved from

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