THERE are certain “givens” that should not be taken. Here is one. It is not only routine, but apparently mandatory, to describe footballers as role models.
Indeed, David Goodwillie, the footballer judged to be a rapist in a civil court case, was last week described as a “high-flying role model”. How high he can fly in front of 500 fans at Broadwood Stadium is a matter of conjecture but his status as an exemplar is surely an example of cliche rather than reality.
There have been so many strands to the Goodwillie transfer and then non-transfer, and most have been explored extensively, but the notion of role models is one that extends beyond football and applies universally.
It is now approaching a moment when a footballer may have to be subjected to a “fit and proper person” test. The rasping noise one hears is that of lawyers rubbing their hands.
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The truth is footballers, or any other sportsman or sportswoman, never applied to be role models and have received scant formal training for the role. The reality is that footballers are merely human beings with a special talent.
They are often lazily classed together when the matter of morality, criminality or wages are raised. There is ‘the footballer” in the same way that there is “the IT consultant”.
A former footballer fulminated this week that the present bunch in his profession were an awful lot, corrupted by money and fame. Much, much worse than the old days.
This footballer was a contemporary, and sometimes team mate, of players who made homophobic gestures on the pitch, made racial slurs to opponents, were jailed for sexual offences, stand accused of physical abuse to women partners, missed drugs tests and routinely lost millions in a fog of drink and gambling.
I have restricted myself in the above sentence to considering international players. Who knows what lies unreported or unscrutinised further down the fame ladder?
Thus the case for footballers as role models is, er, flawed. Our need – or, more accurately, the drive by some commentators to place them on this wobbly pedestal – is, I suggest, more interesting.
I have watched football in eight different decades. I have been involved in various sports for the same time as participant, fan and journalist. The idea – at any age – that I looked upon competitors as providing the template for life is absurd to a spectacular extent.
Yes, one replicates goal scoring celebrations as a kid or takes inspiration from the resilience of an athlete. But the ability to strike a ball, run quickly or endure physical pain does not a guru make. It seems more than odd that this should be a point of discussion.
But any objection to the idea that Goodwillie, or any other athlete, is a role model is met with the response: “But he is.”
The fundamentals are never discussed. First, the impetus for criminal activity surely has more profound causes than “my favourite footballer did it”.
Second, there are no impeccable role models. Muhammad Ali, the greatest sportsman of all time, was brave, even heroic. He slew giants, he faced down a government, fatally compromising his career and putting himself at risk of assassination. However, he was a physical and emotional abuser of women and capable of despicable taunts to fellow boxers, particularly his depiction of Joe Frazier as an ignorant Uncle Tom.
Third, why does the need for unsullied role models exist? It is a function of the commentariat. The existence of any role model has a limited purpose. He or she can show us what we believe to be edifying while occasionally and unwittingly warning us of what not to follow.
Footballers are part of his process. There are some characters who are criminal and malicious. There are many, many more who are quietly gracious, privately charitable and essentially decent people.
Thus they form part of the larger whole. When a footballer such as Jack Grealish stops in front of a wheelchair-using fan, signs a shirt and has his photograph taken do we ask what small thing we could do for another or chastise him for “love cheat” allegations?
This process, of course, extends further into life. I took lessons from my father in how to live some of my life but not all of it. My children, presumably, will do the same of me.
I respected a teacher who lived his life by his faith but profoundly disagreed with his idea of dispensing punishment. I learned from a colleague that the importance of family life can be measured partially but significantly in how much time one gives to it, but did not find his views on many other aspects of life in the least way compatible.
I still learn by observation and conversation. But I understand more about how we all rationalise the way we live and how we must pick our path.
We cannot blame others for the way we live our lives. There are choices. Some, of course, are unavoidable. As parents, partners or friends we show in every moment – good or bad – what we view as important, what we see as essential, what we find difficult, how we are vulnerable and frail.
Others pick up on all of this. They can choose to be influenced by the good and can warned or educated by what they perceive to be the bad.
This is life. It has to be lived in one’s own way. This is its beauty and its struggle.