The Fifth Lap
In a New York Times column published last week, William Rhoden lambasted the idea of an idealized "sports hero." Citing the fall from grace of stars ranging from Tiger Woods to Michael Vick to, most recently, Lance Armstrong, Rhoden argued that the definition of a sports hero as an example or a role model needs to be thrown out.
At one level, I agree with Rhoden that we often incorrectly equate greatness on the field with greatness off it. Athletes and coaches, like all people, are incredibly complex and often face vices just as impressive in magnitude as their athletic talent. There is value in being able to separate out and praise someone's admirable characteristics without projecting that across their entire person, whether that person is an athlete or holds a different position of influence. The principle holds just as well for Michael Jordan as it does for Steve Jobs.
However, Rhoden begins to take the path a step further, implying that at some level we shouldn't hold athletes to a standard of conduct. It is here that I strongly disagree.
Rhoden begins his article by citing an old commercial with Charles Barkley where Barkley asserted that he is "not a role model," that instead the responsibility is on parents to be role models and raise their kids. Rhoden then goes on to infer that the not-a-role-model idea is fundamentally right, that society should not have expected Barkley to be a role model because he can shoot a basketball.
But role model or not, Barkley was, and had no choice but to be, a representative of the organizations and cities that he played for. And it is because of this that we can and should hold athletes to a standard of conduct outside of competition as well as in it.
This idea is particularly clear when applied to our Rice student athletes. By putting on the Rice uniform, they become representatives of the university, its alumni, its students and its values. They become representatives of us.
And, realistically, that representation doesn't end when the uniform comes off. Instead, personal interactions and off-the-field headlines (positive or negative) add significantly to the public perception of Rice athletics, and therefore Rice University.
Social media has added a new dimension to off-the-field interaction between fans and athletes, and therefore applies in this area as well. What student athletes post reflects to a certain extent on this university, whether that works to build its reputation or tear it down.
Critics will argue that athletes are compensated for their athletic performance, not for the quality of their character or conduct. Rice does not give out athletic scholarships to individuals because they are "good people," and even star athletes whose personal misconduct has tarnished their and their organizations' reputations are often still rewarded for athletic performance.
Michael Vick still makes a lot of money playing football. Tiger Woods still is rewarded handsomely by golf tournaments and his myriad endorsement deals.
But even though we reward athletes primarily for their athletic prowess, being a representative is part of the job. Therefore, their organizations and endorsers should hold them to a certain standard of conduct, encourage them to go above it and not tolerate if they fall too far below it. In practice, this idea seems to still hold. Tiger Woods did lose endorsements. Michael Vick did spend time in jail. Olympic athletes who posted racially inflammatory comments were dismissed by their countries.
Athletes are going to make mistakes, sometimes egregious mistakes. Inevitably, we will at some point be blindsided by personal revelations about an athlete whom we admired. I already have been, many times over.
But expectations drive behavior, and therefore we should continue to expect athletes to be positive representatives of their organizations and fans. Just because they sometimes fail does not mean that the expectation should be lowered.
We wouldn't lower them on the field. We shouldn't off the field, either.
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