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.”