Baseball Players Are NOT Role Models

So how does this work with ballplayers? First, we need the motivation to model their behavior. This isn’t difficult to figure out. They get to play a game, make tons of money doing it, and get all sorts of attention for doing it (and other things), and therefore, we’re motivated to model their behavior because we would love that life. Kids are especially impressionable because they haven’t developed the ability to critically analyze the actions of other people on their own. So, when kids see this guy they admire do something stupid, the idea is that they will do the same thing because that thing helps the athlete be what he is. This is, of course, where the line “correlation does not equal causation” comes into play, but children have a hard time seeing that distinction (most adults do for that matter). This is a problem, but one that can be overcome by realizing that athletes are not role models.

Role models are people that you look up to and admire (models, on the other hand, are just people with a skill you try to copy), and you want to be just like them. The thing is that no one is perfect, and there are always things you would do differently. For instance, I am student-teaching. I like the teacher I am with, and I think he does an excellent job. But there are still things that he does that I would not do within my own classroom. Now, I can make that distinction. I can critically judge what I take from him and what I won’t. Children have not fully developed this ability, and they need someone to help them make those judgments on who they want to be and how they need to act. But that responsibility does not lie with athletes.

First of all, we all have different notions of what we should be and how we should act. Those notions are somewhat arbitrary, and they are more opinion than fact. So, how can you tell an athlete what they should be when we can’t even agree on what they should be? Second, you can’t expect athletes to be perfect because we are not perfect. Expecting them to be angels is pretty much just ridiculous. Expecting them to follow the law isn’t ridiculous, but A) the law isn’t always an absolute moral truth and B) whether or not the athlete follows the law has nothing to do with anyone else. Third, high-profile incidents are excellent teaching points because, fourth, your children are YOUR responsibility, not theirs.

I understand that kids and teenagers look up to, admire, and respond to athletes, and I understand the idea of observational learning. BUT IT ISN’T A FATALISTIC PROCESS. Though they’ve learned, they can unlearn, or put in another way, they can learn that what the athlete did was wrong. Put in terms of Bandura’s theory, you need to show them the negative consequences that follow the player’s crime, but because the usual punishment (jail, fines, etc.) occurs so long after the incident which causes the punishment (because of the drawn-out trial system), the kids usually have trouble making the appropriate cause-effect connection on their own. What they see is Player A doing B (the crime) and still being able to play the sport for money. So, as their parents and/or family, it’s up to you to show them that what the athlete does is wrong and, most importantly, why it’s wrong. Don’t deflect the responsibility onto an athlete that has absolutely no connection to you. Explaining the transgression and its consequences is an excellent opportunity for children to learn “acceptable” behavior. Too often, we are afraid or unwilling to talk to children and teenagers about difficult topics, but they will never learn if you never talk to them.

Athletes do not have a responsibility to your children. You do. Athletes have responsibilities to their team, so when they do screw up, the only apology needs to be directed toward the organization. They don’t need to issue public apologies. The only apologies that need to be made are those to the people affected by the incident, and this is applicable to all those situations in which today’s athletes seem to throw out public apologies for whatever they do. Yes, you can criticize them for making a mistake, but you cannot criticize them because they let your children down. Because if you fail to make your children understand why what the athlete did was wrong, it is YOU that is letting your children down.

9 thoughts on “Baseball Players Are NOT Role Models

  1. Nah. Just trying to back up common sense with psychological explanations while continuing my designs to kill my father and marry my mother.

  2. Mark, I think that athletes ARE role models. I agree that kids aren't going to do any old thing just because some athlete does it. I think that kids are smart enough to choose their own behaviors. But the idea that kids aren't influenced by athletes flies in the face of too much of my life experience.

    As a kid, I was influenced by Muhammad Ali. I did not become a fighter or a Muslim. But I did learn something about taking an unpopular stand.

    I was also influenced by Joe Namath (just to prove that I could be influenced by someone other than the most influential athlete of all time). Joe represented that you could be cool and still like sports. I liked the way Joe thumbed his nose at the establishment. I'm a nose thumber too. Also, I liked the life he led. All of my friends wanted to grow up, have bachelor apartments in Manhattan and date a series of beautiful women. That idea stayed in my mind for a long time, even after I grew up and realized it was only an adolescent fantasy.

    There's also the fact that most boys grow up playing sports. When I was a kid, that's 90% of what we did with our free time during the first 14 years of life. When I played basketball, I wanted to be Clyde Frazier, or at least the way I thought Clyde Frazier might be if he was trapped in the body of someone much smaller and less athletic. I thought Clyde was cool, and extremely smart on the court, and that's how I wanted to play. Today, I might decide to emulate someone like Kobe Bryant, and adopt the look of an assassin, and I'd certainly have to decide how much trash talk I wanted to incorporate in my game. Are we shaped in part by how we learn to play? I think so.

    I think that how boys approach games and sports influences their view of life. My model business organization is built on the 1970 Knicks. I want to play for an organization made up of equally important complementary parts. Instead I keep finding myself on some version of the Chicago Bulls.

    I also worry about the message that athletes send to kids on the topic of money. When I was a kid, athletes were successful but they weren't rich. We didn't think about how much money they made.

    There are more direct role-model kinds of influences. I think that athletes DO influence boys to take anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, though fortunately this particular influence appears to be on the decline.

    Mark, you appear to be addressing whether athletes have an obligation to be good role models. Perhaps they do not. But they are role models anyway.

  3. Interesting debate but I'm going to have to side with Mark on this one Larry.

    Kids today have an advantage that we didn't have back in the days of Namath, Ali and Clyde — it is called the internet. Add in sensationalist journalism — popularized as much by ESPN as by TMZ and you have a recipe for trouble.

    The fact is that pre-1980s the media kept secrets it chose to and the pecadillos of celebrities and athletes were off-the-grid. Now? Not so much.

    And in fairness the thug culture is being popularized by the organizations that employ the athletes as are the multimillion dollar contracts. The Mets (among others) added black caps & jerseys so that more hip-hop stars would wear their stuff. They blast loud music at the stadiums and removed the organ from the soundtrack of the game.

    Babe Ruth didn't make millions but he did tell a reporter that he'd had "a better year" than the President did and that was why he made a higher salary. Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb both showed up drunk at games and yet both were enshrined in the Hall of Fame. If MLB wanted to eliminate performance enhancing drugs from the dialogue they could impose a zero tolerance policy and ban multiple offenders permanently. Is it the player or the league that perpetuates the problem?

    I'm not sure that this generation of pro athletes is any different OR if the information I have on them is simply more extensive than in the 60's. Before steroids was amphetamines and cocaine in the NBA, NFL and MLB. Many players have talked about how "greenies" and "reds" were handed out before games.

    Back when these guys were just names on a baseball card to me it seemed so much simpler. Now I know better because I have the ability to Google them.

  4. Mike, you make terrific points.

    I didn't mean to say that today's athletes are worse role models than the ones on the scene when I was young, though I think some of what I said might be interpreted that way. For example, I think Mo Rivera is a terrific role model. Ditto Lance Armstrong. You're absolutely right, it's a lot harder to maintain a positive public image today.

    It may also be true that kids today are more cynical than I was when I was young. So maybe they're harder to influence.

    I may have meandered a bit as I tried to make my point, but my point is that athletes ARE role models, whether or not they want to accept this as a responsibility. Some are what we might regard as positive role models, others not so much, but they DO have influence.

    • Larry, athletes are not, by default, role models. They can become role models, but they are not instantly role models by the virtue of being a professional athlete. The people you mention have become role models by demonstrating certain attributes that, as a society, we have defined as good ones.

      As for today vs. yesteryear, players aren't better or worse, probably. They just have different vices.

      • Mark, this isn't a matter of whether athletes SHOULD BE role models, or whether athletes are POSITIVE role models. This is a question of whether athletes ARE role models, whether or not by choice, and whether or not for the good of society.

        Among the many things I am not, I am not a social scientist. But I think that athletes ARE role models. They are considered to be highly successful, and most kids pay attention to successful people and hope to be successful themselves. They are also generally considered to be sexually attractive, which is of course very important to kids who are past a certain age. So, if A-Rod is presented to the public as a rich and successful man who can date any Hollywood star he likes … it seems obvious to me that nearly any teenage boy would like to be like A-Rod.

        This topic becomes murkier if you take it any further. I can see a young man saying, I'd like to be like A-Rod and have a lot of money and date Cameron Diaz. I'm not sure that the same young man decides to take anabolic steroids or even spends hours in the batting cage. It's also possible for kids to learn something from the mistakes that a role model might make — for example, I think that kids who admire Tony Gwynn might purposely decide not to use chewing tobacco.

        I'm not saying that hundreds of thousands of kids are suddenly going to start verbally abusing food service workers just because Randy Moss did it. But athletes are well-publicized models of success. Kids ARE going to pay attention. There IS going to be an effect.

  5. Certainly there will be an effect. But again, they are models, not role models. For the most part, we use the term "role models" to refer to someone that we want to emulate in almost every facet (which is why we get upset when athletes commit crimes of various sorts), and athletes, until they prove otherwise, should not be under that guise. If your child is into sports and begins to admire and emulate athletes, you should probably have a talk with him/her, especially when they do something wrong. Again, it's up to parents or adults close to the child to begin the discussion of how athletes are people who make mistakes and cannot be arbitrarily held in high esteem. When Chipper cheated on his wife, I had a serious issue at the moment. My favorite player had just committed a serious social misdeed, and I had to figure out where to go from there. My dad came in and explained the situation. He explained that Chipper had made a mistake, but it was still okay to like Chipper as a player. He worked hard, played the game well, and did what he could to help his team win, but he made sure to note that Chipper had messed up. He also explained why what Chipper did was wrong. This was around 1996 or 1997, and I was like 8 or 9. I didn't immediately understand, but it started me down the road of understanding that there's a difference between favorite "players" and people I want to be like. Chipper, to me at least, has repaired his image and made the best of the situation while doing other somewhat self-less things, and I admire that. Yes, athletes have an impact on children, and they'll want to be like them. But it's up to the adults who care about them to take the opportunity, when they screw up, to take the time to explain to children the problems with blindly doing what they do. As I said, it's an excellent teaching moment. But blaming athletes for not being good role models seems to be a deflection of responsibility. You are still much closer to them and will have a more significant impact, and you should take the time to mold your children in the ways you think they should live. After a while, they can make their own judgments, and they'll be able to do a better job of that if you start early.