Should celebrities or athletes really be our role models?

Should celebrities or athletes really be our role models?

This week Angelina Jolie announced that she is having a double mastectomy after discovering she has an 87% chance of developing breast cancer and 50% risk of ovarian cancer. Her decision to go public has been praised, describing her as a ‘role model’ for other people. Celebrities have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to use their power for the benefit of others. But what makes us admire someone, and should we really be looking to athletes as role models?

It’s not just the physical prowess of athletes which we like to hear about, but also the more intimate details of their lives. We like to know their workout regimes; their choice of breakfast and pre-match meals; their hairstyles and clothes; relationships, opinions and personal decisions. If we see someone as a role model we may trust these details as being good choices, and allow them to influence our own decisions.

Young people in particular are influenced hugely by their role models.  Just seeing something can be done by somebody else inspires us to do it ourselves. Many sports people e.g. David Beckham seem to become role models particularly for young people, whereas others just don’t seem to wield the same influence. The reason perhaps lies in how well we can identify with them and how the message is being delivered. Sociologist Richard Sennnet talked of how some inspiring figures can irritate, rather than inspire us. “When the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment”. The finest role models are those who we feel an affinity with and show us (not tell us) how to make the best of ourselves.

 A good example of this are athletes who ‘come out’ as openly gay. For example, Jason Collins, the US basketball player, became the first openly gay male in US Sports Leagues. Collins, who refers to Martina Navratilova as his own role model, said he was overwhelmed by the support he had received and said he hoped he could be a role model to others. Even President Obama announced his hopes for positive influences, stating “I think a lot of young people out there who are gay or lesbian, who are struggling, to see a role model like that who's unafraid, I think it's a great thing."

The success of women Olympians and Paralympians like Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton and Ellie Simmonds has meant women in this country were last year particularly encouraged and inspired to take part in more sport. At a time when women’s sports such as netball, cricket and football currently account for less than 2% of TV sports broadcasting, and obesity rates increasing, strong female role models are more important than ever. New Culture Secretary Maria Miller wrote to TV bosses after the Olympics to encourage them to show more women’s sport, stating that female athletes were ‘incredibly powerful role models’ for women in this country.

Role models can also be very powerful forces in helping us make difficult health decisions. In the case of Angelina Jolie, it’s hoped her message will encourage other women to consider taking the brave step of double mastectomy.

Dr Chan, Charlie Chan, consultant breast surgeon at Nuffield and Cheltenham General hospitals stated: “I think what she is doing is actually very laudable. Lots of people look to role models in the media to help inform them about these decisions and this shows everyone has to make them; celebrities too”.

Unfortunately, as well as being a good influence, role models can work the other way too. For example, last year’s revelations of cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s taking drugs to fuel his Tour de France success was a shock to his peers and admirers. The story was one of the top news stories across the world during that week. In this respect, role models bear a lot of responsibility to their fans.

But is the scrutiny to which top athletes come under fair? Not everyone thinks so.  American TV analyst Charles Barkley feels athletes have too much pressure on them to have perfect levels of behaviour, and their responsibility should be to perform well in their sport and that’s it. Instead, he asserts it’s really parents who should be the role models for children.

Any successful  athlete will be in the news and watched by adults and children. The easy, 24-hour access to information via technology means this viewing is even more focussed. The position of athletes earns them extra privileges and power, and in turn they should recognize their influence and use it in a positive way.

Whether we do or don’t look to celebrity athletes as our role models is likely down to the values instilled in children by their parents. Do they teach their children to think for themselves rather than blindly mimicking the behaviour of other people, including famous sports figures? Ultimately the qualities we choose to admire in sports figures  is just as important as the sometimes questionable decisions of our celebrity role models. 


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