OTTAWA (CUP) 8212; Sex, drugs and … sports?
Athletes are often highly regarded as wholesome heroes for kids to look up to. But as recent tabloid fodder has made all too clear, athletes do not always set a good example for their fans, with violent outbursts, titillating personal lives and questionable etiquette.
What’s more, many professional athletes’ reputations have been irreversibly tarnished by accusations of substance abuse, sexual assault and promoting violence towards other players, officials and fans. Athletes’ personal lives are now analyzed daily in newspapers and blogs and it appears public interest in what occurs after the game has significantly increased.
People are now searching for more than just statistics on their favourite athlete’s performance 8212; and accordingly, sports stars are delivering scandal after scandal. Have the mighty finally fallen?
Role models and bad boys
Popular Canadian athletes such as Sidney Crosby, Steve Nash, and Donovan Bailey are often heroes to people who aspire to be sports stars, but why does the public view them as role models?
University of Ottawa communications professor, Mark Lowes has written two books on the relationship between media, sports and popular culture. He believes that the concept of a role model is a general phenomenon.
“A person is a role model because they represent something that [another] person wants to be,” explained Lowes. “Professional athletes present an opportunity for people to emulate [their characteristics].”
He also pointed out that the term “role model” has positive connotations, which is something that isn’t always applicable to professional athletes 8212; most recently Tiger Woods, who was outed as a serial cheater back in November.
Louise Lemyre, who teaches at the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, wrote in an email that the public has a complex relationship with sports stars.
“On the one hand, people want to identify with stars, and seeing stars weaknesses and soft spots makes them more alike to oneself and bridges the gap of social distance,” she said.
“One wants to admire the icon, and therefore, if the flaw jeopardizes the core of the esteem, then it will incur rejection. So, binging, speeding and dating tend to be accepted from sport stars, but core cheating in a competition will lose all [of the public’s] respect.”
Scandal in the sports world
Woods recently became a poster boy for poor role models after he crashed his car in November and rumours surfaced suggesting he had cheated on his wife Elin Nordegren 8212; multiple times, with multiple women. Woods’s image was undeniably tarnished by the incident, as a number of his lucrative sponsorship deals fell through and the situation worsened as reports of more affairs began to surface.
This bad-boy sports story is no isolated incident, though.
A 2001 study entitled “Villains, fools or heroes? Sports stars as role models for young people” by Gill Lines, a media professor at Brighton University in the United Kingdom, examined athletes’ impact on young people. The study, which was published in the journal Leisure Studies, concluded that today’s celebrity male athletes tend to exemplify “laddishness” 8212; rowdy, macho or immature behaviour 8212; drunken exploits and wife/girlfriend beatings, among other undesirable behaviours.
In particular, hockey 8212; arguably Canada’s most popular sport 8212; consistently deals with incidents involving violent behaviour that precisely reflects what Lines outlines in the study. Ottawa professor Lowes described hockey as an environment that perpetuates a “hyper-masculine culture.”
Some golden examples of what this hyper-masculine environment can produce include former Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery, who made a crude reference towards his ex-girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert. Avery referred to his former flame, who had moved on to date then-Calgary Flames (and now Toronto Maple Leafs) defender Dion Phaneuf, as “sloppy seconds,” when speaking to reporters after a practice, according to a December 2008 National Post article. Even former Ottawa Senators goaltender Ray Emery has caused his fair share of trouble. Emery became newsworthy in September 2007 when a local senior citizen accused Emery of road rage and again in March 2009, when he was charged with stunt driving in his white Hummer.
Where are all the bad girls?
Although many stories regarding rebellious athletes involve men, women also play sports professionally and also make mistakes in front of the public eye.
Lines’ study examines female sports stars, whom he found to be marginalized, trivialized and objectified in the sports industry. Women play a very different part in the game than men do when it comes to the way they are represented in the media.
Less-than-favourable role models seem to be more often of the male variety than female. The majority of negative press in the sports world comes from males. This could be because males seem to receive more coverage in the media and there are more men’s leagues and opportunities for men to excel in sports.
Fourth-year University of Ottawa women’s studies student, JoAnne Gordon feels people react differently to inappropriate behaviour by women in the sports world, compared with men’s behaviour.
“Women do something wrong in a sports environment and they are heavily scrutinized; when men do something [bad], it is usually validated,” said Gordon.
For example, when Serena Williams threatened a line judge at a tennis match last September, FoxNews.com called the incident “bizarre” and “ugly,” and it received coverage on almost all sports channels. Meanwhile, heated exchanges between hockey stars and refs rarely merit a mention at all, yet they occur quite often. The double standard is that this behavior would likely have been perfectly acceptable if it happened within the confines of a hockey rink with male players.
They get paid to play
Some might argue that athletes get paid to play a sport, not to be a role model. Do athletes have a moral responsibility to be good role models?
Psychology professor Lemyre believes they do, but she also points out that citizens should monitor athletes and advocate for appropriate behaviour.
“The public has a responsibility to sanction abusive behaviours by athletes or professionals through withdrawing its support,” she said. “One should not accept and shrug at violent or illegal behaviour from a “star.'”
Stories of sports and scandal will continue to make headlines; this will undoubtedly never change. As long as enough people look up to athletes and treat them as celebrities, their lives will continue to amaze, amuse and annoy us. However, it is also possible for athletes to maintain a positive image in the media.
“In the NBA, [athletes] can [project] a clean image,” said Lowes, who noted that several NBA players dress professionally and act in a dignified manner. “They are role models and people adopt their style, mannerisms and behaviour.”
It is ultimately an individual’s decision to choose to emulate a particular athlete, or dismiss the athlete’s behaviour as inappropriate.
“As “consumers’ of sport, we could exert much more shaping of ethos and ethics,” explained Lemyre. “So the question becomes: do we fall for star behaviours?”
So long as these behaviours keep pandering to our appetite for the outrageous, the answer is, unfortunately &- yes.
These sports stars have been known to take full advantage of their celebrity status to play the field as well as the game.
Kobe Bryant &- (American basketball player) In 2003, a hotel employee accused Bryant of sexual assault, but the case was eventually dropped and settled out of court.
Joe DiMaggio &- (American baseball player) The baseball legend was linked to a multitude of women, including Morgan Fairchild, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe.
Shawn Kemp &- (American basketball player) The now-retired basketballer fathered seven children with six different women, and is alleged to have at least six more.
Tiger Woods &- (American professional golfer) At last count, 11 different women have claimed to have slept with the married-to-a-supermodel golf star.
There might be a reason other than genetics for why these athletes can run/skate/throw so fast.
Ben Johnson &- (Canadian sprinter) Canada’s pride soon turned to shame after Johnson set a 100m record at the 1988 Summer Olympics and subsequently lost his medal for using steroids.
Marion Jones &- (American sprinter) She won five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but later admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs prior to competition. Jones then forfeited all accolades received between 2000 and 2007.
Floyd Landis &- (American cyclist) The biker finished first in the 2006 Tour de France, but his win was rescinded after his urine showed abnormally high levels of testosterone 8212; a sign of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Mark McGwire &- (American baseball player) Earlier this year, McGwire admitted to taking steroids in 1998 when he broke the home-run record.