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?”
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.”
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.