Peter Day. Warning: role models may shrink

Jul 11, 2015

Role models: We love them. We look up to them. We say we need them. We want to know them. We want to live through them. But who are they, and what purpose do they serve?

In Australia they tend to be sportsmen and celebrities of note: young people who can kick a footy, smash a tennis ball, and generally do things much faster and better than the rest of us – and look good while doing so.

And while there is something noble and edifying in admiring another’s feats, the cultural propensity to place another human being on a pedestal is both fraught and superficial. After all, when we do so aren’t we, in effect, saying: ‘You’re better than me; therefore you should behave differently, and be held to a higher standard?’

Thus, not only must Nick Kyrgios – barely out of his teens- be a fine athlete, but also an exemplary citizen: morally upright and mature beyond his years ‘because my kids and I look up to you; we need you to be better than us’.

There is something deeply unhealthy and oppressive in all this; not only do we sell ourselves short, but we place unreal expectations on others. It’s a form of escapism in which we project our unfulfilled hopes and dreams onto others and, on the way, manage to relinquish personal responsibility. Oh, and when things turn pear-shaped, when the poster boy gets caught-out, we have a ready-made scapegoat.

Indeed, to impose upon anybody, especially young, inexperienced sporting celebrities, the epithet, ‘role model’, is unrealistic, unfair, and almost always guaranteed to end in tears.

As a society, we have a collective appetite for moral leadership, for someone to look up to and inspire us. This is a laudable thing, but needs to be tempered by common sense and fairness. After all, sporting fame not only affords our champions great privileges and opportunities, it also imposes upon them a significant burden because, along with highlighting their abilities and successes, fame spotlights their frailties and failures as well – and very publicly. So when the one we looked-up to, the one in whom we invested our hopes and dreams stuffs-up; don’t we let them know it. Quickly the celebrity giant, the model-of-virtue, is headlined as a moral midget who has let us all down.

The main difference between the likes of Nick Kyrgios and the rest of us is that whatever he does in his workplace is seen by millions: the dummy spits, the obscenities, the failures, the glories – all of it! Perhaps the rest of us should be thankful that we’re not being filmed when we’re having an off day or acting the goat at work.

To hover in the shadows of others just because they happen to run very fast, or look beautiful, or enjoy a ‘good reputation’, is just another way of investing in the cult-of-the-celebrity. And, like all cults, membership entails handing over responsibility, embracing a false god, and living ‘my’ life through someone else’s.

Indeed, by making ‘role model’ so overwhelmingly synonymous with someone else’s achievements, with someone else’s virtues, with someone else’s fame, we risk losing contact with our very selves, with our own unique beauty and capacity. Gosh, we risk making ourselves small.

Surely, each of us can strive to lead, to be virtuous, to inspire: to be a good, decent, admirable citizen. Surely, by attending to the ‘good citizen’ within, we are much less likely to be conned into handing over our gifts to others, especially so called famous others.

In the end, it behoves us all – athletes and spectators alike – to cherish the capacity of sport to change us, to make where we live a better place: to model goodness and decency and fairness. But to do so, not only must the champions be humble and grounded, so must the spectators as well.

Being a role model is not just someone else’s responsibility.




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