As the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Kings paraded through their local streets among thousands of fans to celebrate their recent championships, an objective non-sports fan observer may have wondered about the celebration. These parades, along with the upcoming induction of several players into baseball’s Hall of Fame, and some eulogies written about the late Tony Gwynn all indicate how commonly society treats its athletes as heroes.
Some parents may be glad that their children look up to these sports heroes, while other parents may shudder at the thought that these are the role models for their children. Though Tony Gwynn was remembered fondly by those close to him, the list of non-exemplar heroes or role models may be lengthier. As late-night host Conan O’Brien recently quipped, “A new report out of Chicago reveals that the crime rate plummets during an NFL game. Mainly because the most dangerous criminals are busy on the field.”
Are parents justifiably concerned about their children’s wearing jerseys or hanging up pictures of the convicted criminals to whom Conan O’Brien referred?
Who idolizes athletes, how do they choose their heroes, and should they have heroes? By looking at all of these questions, the answer to the last one may depend on the definition of hero.
Who Considers them Heroes?
Several studies confirm that treating athletes as heroes begins at a young age, peaks in adolescence, and fades in adulthood. When asked to choose one famous person they look up to, 13-28% (in different studies) of children ranging in age from 6-14 chose athletes.
As evidenced by the above examples, athletes are nearly universally treated as more than humans with sports talents; however, not every group idolizes them as much as children:
- In a large comparable study done in Canada, clear distinctions were apparent between boys and girls; the girls rarely identified sports figures as role models.
- Adults were asked a similar question, inquiring about a person they most admire, and less than 1% responded with an athlete.
- When asked to choose a person they would “most like to resemble,” children in other cultures, such as Congo, rarely mentioned athletes (or entertainers), indicating that the sports hero may be a Western Civilization phenomenon.
How do they Choose Heroes?
As with partners, politicians, and peers, people tend to choose heroes similar to them. For athletic heroes, this includes similar on and off the court. For example, children tend to choose a hero from a sport they enjoy most, and, if they themselves play sports, one who plays the same position as they do. Perhaps not surprisingly, people almost always choose heroes of the same race and gender. What may be surprising is the strength of these choices. Eighty of 100 students, when asked about Mike Tyson’s rape conviction, believed that he was innocent. After watching a movie portraying his troubled history with the law, 25 of the students changed their belief to guilty. All 25 were white women.
Risk/Reward of Sports Heroes
There are two ways an athlete can be influential, both positively and negatively:
- Albert Bandura proved that through a process he called “social learning theory,” a person can be affected by someone he observes, even without any contact or conversation. In Bandura’s landmark Bobo Doll Experiment, he found that children exposed to adults acting aggressively toward a giant clown doll were more likely to act aggressively.
The implications for athletes as heroes are obvious. The more a child observes an athlete acting arrogantly, unethically, or illegally, the likelier they are to embody those traits or behaviors. Conversely, should an athlete act appropriately, or show exemplary behavior, he can serve as a positive influence on the child.
- Another advantage or disadvantage of athletes as heroes is their ability to influence social change. Whether issues of race or gender, war or illness, athletes have often served at the front lines of activism.
Defining a Hero
After reviewing centuries-worth of literature, from ancient Greece to contemporary philosophers, George K. Barney, in “The hailed the haloed and the hallowed: Sports heroes and their qualities – An analysis and hypothetical model for their commemoration,” extracts four qualities that should define an athletic hero:
- Must exemplify physical excellence in terms of health, fitness, and athletic skill
- Must exemplify moral excellence in terms of generosity, self-control, and righteousness
- Must exhibit social excellence in terms of protecting the interests of a community before self
- Must survive the judgment of time with respect to the other criteria
Following these criteria, parents need not worry about their children’s heroes. As it turns out, it’s not about choosing athletes as heroes that’s detrimental; it’s about which athletes they choose. Choose wisely.