Sunday focus | Athletes as role models

Summertime hall of shame calls into question athletes’ roles as heroes

 

A murder charge, drug use and racism have dominated much of the conversation in sports lately. Are there any heroes left for youths?

rnadkarni@MiamiHerald.com

The dog days of this summer have been scorched by controversies for many professional athletes. From criminal charges to doping scandals, such off-field issues can quickly tarnish the shine of a superstar in any sport.

The most shocking example is former New England Patriots and University of Florida star tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder in the killing of Odin Lloyd in late June. Hernandez — also being investigated in a double-homicide from 2012 — has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in a Massachusetts prison, where he is being held without bail.

Athletes using performance-enhancing drugs and one even making a racial slur also have come under intense scrutiny this summer.

Although the effects of off-field problems are immediate for an athlete’s team or organization, the repercussions also are felt at other levels of athletics, especially the youth and high school levels, where the perception of professional athletes is a contributing factor in the young athletes’ development.

Romary Corneille is entering Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana this fall. He played football and ran track at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and he frequently has looked to athletes for motivation in his own life.

“I do expect more from athletes than other adults,” Corneille said. “There could be thousands of little kids that will look up to a certain player, and when a kid finds out that player is getting arrested, that could break their hearts.”

For instance, U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay tested positive for a banned substance, as did Jamaica’s Asafa Powell. Gay had long touted himself as a clean athlete, even volunteering for an enhanced testing program to back up his words.

In baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun — who starred in college at UM — accepted a 65-game suspension for his connection to the Biogenesis clinic, where records show he received PEDs from Tony Bosch, the former operator of the now-closed Miami clinic. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who grew up in Miami and also is connected to the clinic, is expected to receive an even harsher penalty as Major League Baseball’s investigation nears its end.

And in late July, video surfaced on the Internet of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver — and, coincidentally, another former Gator — Riley Cooper using a racial slur at a concert. He apologized publicly and to his team in private. The Eagles fined him for the indiscretion, and he has since left the team to pursue counseling.

Despite the wrongdoing, Corneille sees value in athletes who learn from off-field mistakes. He said his favorite athlete is Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who was kicked off the football team while in college at LSU for failing drug tests.

“I look up to [Mathieu] because even though he had all these problems he had to face, they didn’t stop him from reaching his dream,” Corneille said. “The Aaron Hernandez case does not make it hard for me to look up to athletes because all of us grew up completely different. Some of us leave the life we used to live behind and some of us don’t.”

Trying to figure out who left the life behind and who didn’t is now certainly on the agenda for NFL teams. Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports reported that in wake of the Hernandez case, NFL teams might begin using experts to examine the tattoos of draft prospects to ensure players do not have any gang ties.

Impressionable youth

Younger sports fans are also cognizant of the issues surrounding professional athletes.

Zach Brill, 13, has been playing basketball recreationally for eight years. His family, which lives in Weston, has owned Heat season tickets for nearly 15 years. And in late December, he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with an NBA-themed party.

“I think most athletes are good role models, but I think that the fame really takes a toll on some of them,” Brill said. “They think that because they’re famous and make a lot of money, they are above the law. It’s disappointing when athletes are so looked up to and get in trouble.”

Making sure young athletes are emulating the right characteristics of professional stars in the same sport is a job that often falls on coaches such as Tim Harris, who leads the football program at Miami Booker T. Washington High School.

Harris emphasized that he tells his players to share the “same passion and love” between what they do on the field and what they do off it.

“We always try to tell students to follow success,” Harris said. “But we want them to learn from the guys doing things the right way. We want them to understand how important it is to choose the right path. Aaron Hernandez did not show the same passion and love for what he did off the field.”

Harris has coached many athletes who go on to have success at the collegiate level. The current quarterback for his team, Treon Harris, just ended a competitive recruiting process by committing to Florida State.

“I just try to make sure kids understand their goals and dreams,” Harris said. “If you want to be successful, you need to identify what is right and what is wrong.”

A different era

Ultimately, athletes are no longer the type of role models they were many decades ago.

Randy Roberts, a professor at Purdue University, has studied the societal impact of athletes for many years. In his books, he has researched topics from the Mike Tyson rape trial to the popular Army and Navy football teams of the 1940s.

“It’s always important for young people to separate athletic performance from character,” Roberts said. “Like any field, someone can be great at their job but not necessarily be a great person.”

Roberts has found many reasons for the prevalence of athletes as role models. In addition to their athletic success, Roberts noted that athletes often represent a way out of hard times, and are figures of wealth and fame, particularly for disadvantaged youths. He claims they’ve become exemplars of America’s “instant gratification” society.

The types of popular athletes have certainly changed, according to Roberts’ research. His book, A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation at War, about the game of 1944 when the two schools were ranked first and second in the country, detailed how the athletes at those schools served as an important respite during wartime in America.

But it has been a long time since Army or Navy was ranked near the top in football. Now, top athletes tend to opt for “pro factories” that help athletes get to the next level.

“Back in the day, schools like Army and Navy did have the best players,” Roberts said. “Today, the best players hope to play for a year or two before they can become a professional.”

In addition to the obvious changes over time in terms of where the best athletes choose to play, the information the public knows about athletes is also radically different. With the rise of agents, publicists and managers, the public must peel back many layers before seeing the true color of any athlete.

Logan Morrison of the Marlins is perhaps the embodiment of the modern athlete, frequently communicating with his legions of fans via social media with a charismatic public persona.

“Being a role model comes with the territory,” Morrison said. “When I was young I wanted to be a big-league baseball player. Now I get to live that dream. Now I take on responsibility that I may not want to do all the time. So what, you know?”

Choose wisely

Tiger Woods was once the model professional before a car accident at his home brought to light his extramarital affairs, shattering the privacy that previously marked his personal life.

“All we really know about athletes is their image in the media,” Roberts said. “Most of the time, athletes are insulated. You don’t really know them as a person.”

For Roberts, this is where it becomes dicey for young athletes or young people in general to look up to athletes. Although their accomplishments on the field might represent a goal or a desire, emulating someone’s personal life when you aren’t sure who they really are can lead to trouble.

“Young people should not misinterpret athletic ability,” Roberts said. “They should look at parents, teachers or ministers for role models. I might want to be a professional athletes, but that does not mean I should emulate everything.”

The perceived change in the character of popular athletes might be a result of societal changes as well. Athletes with star potential are now tracked from an extremely young age, making 14- and 15-year-olds the center of attention. The attention, as well as the pressure, can have a negative impact on young minds.

Not to mention that young athletes with extreme potential are regarded as saviors, and often coddled along the way. As Roberts pointed out, young athletes struggle to develop strong character when “people don’t say no” to them.

Yet, although the best athletes might no longer attend colleges for a full four years or stay out of the tabloids, perception isn’t always reality.

“As long as you’re secure with who you are, that’s all that matters,” Morrison said. “If you’re a good person, that will show through. There’s a perception out there of me, and I don’t care. You have to be a little cocky, confident to play this game. But if someone really got to know me or the next guy, they’d realize that off the field I’m not that way.”

Silver lining

The good news is that positive role models certainly still exist, and in abundance. The Heat’s Dwyane Wade was recently honored with BET’s Humanitarian Award for his charitable efforts. MLB just announced the nominees for its Branch Rickey Award, given to a player who displays exceptional community service. Morrison is the Marlins’ nominee.

“If you look at guys like Peyton Manning or LeBron James, they’re doing it the right way,” Roberts said. “Those are the people kids should look at.”

Echoing Roberts’ words, Brill shows that young fans and young athletes do appreciate professionals who conduct themselves in the proper manner.

“My favorite athletes are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning,” Brill said. “The main reason I look up to them is because they are unique and different than most people. But also because they do so much for their community, like donations to charities and holding fundraisers.”

So for as long as sports remain a microcosm of life, there will be good role models and bad ones throughout. It is more a matter of freedom of choice for youths to find their own way, and hopefully, they will go down the right path.

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