Opinion

Sunday 18 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Athletes have a role to play - but they aren't role models'

Cage rage: Conor McGregor made his fortune from battering people in the most blood-splattered way possible and people suddenly decided they didn't want their children to emulate him?
Cage rage: Conor McGregor made his fortune from battering people in the most blood-splattered way possible and people suddenly decided they didn't want their children to emulate him?
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

This has been a brave week for underage rugby on the pitch, despite missing out on a semi-final in Argentina.

Off the pitch, however, it has been a less-than-stellar time for the egg-chasers.

Rugby always had the reputation of being a thug's game played by gentlemen, while 'soccer' was a gentleman's game played by thugs.

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But recent revelations about the behaviour of current and former players may have chipped away at the 'gentleman' part of that phrase.

First there is the ongoing battle over whether Paddy Jackson should be allowed to pursue his career at London Irish in the face of widespread opposition.

Then there was the double whammy for the IRFU who now have to investigate allegations of Sean O'Brien weeing on someone's leg in a city centre boozer, followed by the far more serious story that a former Leinster star sent an Academy player to the hospital when he punched him.

These allegations and incidents are concerning, for a variety of different reasons and they all occur at a time when the behaviour of sports people is under greater scrutiny than ever before.

The Jackson case has the widest implications, hinging as it does on the issue of whether someone should be hounded out of their career by, depending on your point of view, a vengeful Twitter mob/bunch of concerned citizens.

The other alleged incidents would not be entirely unheard of at rugby functions.

The one thing top rugby players have in common is the same thing they have in common with, say, Conor McGregor and his often erratic behaviour - these guys are held up as role models and they are expected to behave to a decent standard.

The thing is, they are not role models, they should not be considered to be role models and if you have a kid who looks to an athlete as his or her role model, you're doing that child a grave disservice.

One article in an Irish paper this week asked: 'Is Paddy Jackson's skill with a ball more important than his attitude to women?'

The answer? Yes. For the time he is on the field, then those skills are absolutely more important.

Some people may not like that approach, and that's understandable.

But nobody goes into sport to become a role model. They go into the sport because they happened to have a freakishly good talent that they have honed since childhood.

Indeed, the very elements which make for a successful professional athlete - dedication, single-mindedness, an obsessive selfishness etc - are almost precisely the reasons why they are also the last people you should expect to display moral leadership.

We saw that in farcical detail when Wayne Rooney was infamously busted for availing of the services of a lady of the night. The shame! How very dare he! What will the kiddies make of it?

Well, Rooney was a working class kid taken out of school at 15 and spent his life playing football.

Nobody's defending his use of prostitutes but isn't it a bit much to expect a kid from his background to serve as a shining example to today's youth?

Similarly, when McGregor chucked a table through the window of a bus containing some rivals, the Helen Lovejoys of this world were quick to come out with the usual 'will someone please think about the children?' argument.

Here's a guy who has made his fortune from battering people in the most gruesome and blood-splattered way possible and people suddenly decided they didn't want their children to emulate him?

There have been numerous studies debunking the myth of the role model yet people still insist in employing this argument any time a well-known face steps out of line.

In a way, it's almost like outsourcing your child's development.

As I said, nobody in their right mind grows up actively wanting to be a role model, although one contender on the last season of The X Factor tearfully claimed that she 'wanted to be a role model for young girls around the world'.

Talk about having a great welcome for yourself.

Thanks to social media, we now know much more about our sporting heroes than in times past. Too much, in fact.

Let's put it this way, nobody ever accused Colin Farrell of being a bad example - he did his job on set and then did whatever he wanted to do on his own time.

Players are in a similar situation - they are paid to perform on the pitch and that is where their responsibility ends.

We don't have to like them on a personal level.

We certainly don't have to approve of their lifestyle choices (the behaviour of Jackson and his cronies was undeniably grotesque).

We're too quick to place people on an unrealistic pedestal and then have an attack of the vapours when it turns out they're just as flawed and obnoxious as the rest of us.

Still, it might be a good idea to wear waterproof trousers the next time you go drinking with the rugger lads...

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