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 [Footballers, role models, why?]
 by Luke Ginnell

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Why do we think footballers ought to be role models? 
[This article originally appeared in Late Tackle Magazine, Issue 16, September 2013. You can buy the magazine here.]

A young man signs a piece of paper.  At sixteen years of age, this marks the point when his path through life begins to diverge from those around him. He has just become a professional footballer, and though still not permitted to vote, the opportunities that will be afforded to this novice mean he is to be saddled with a very adult responsibility. With the stroke of a pen, he has been unwittingly transformed from pubescent jock into a role model for rudderless teens, frustrated middle-aged men, and by extension, the rudderless teenage children of frustrated middle-aged men. From a very young age, professional footballers are elevated to a status to which many with twice their years would struggle to adapt. Exactly what is it, then, that qualifies these particular individuals to assume such a burden? Are they philosophers, thinkers, boys whose academic capacities predestine them for the life of an exemplar? Intellectuals, maybe, earmarked as statesmen or sociological commentators? No, actually. They kick balls around a pitch, which they often don’t even do particularly well.

Humanity has always been prone to hero worship. Like animals, we idolise the strong, deferring to their physical dominance. What differentiates us from beasts, however, is our veneration of the gifted. The Renaissance brought us the reign of the scholar, but modernity’s expression of reverence is most commonly directed towards actors, pop stars, and sportsmen. We afford these people a status previously reserved for the toughest. Sport, then, is a logical extension of humanity’s instinct to exalt physical superiority and drool over both muscular athleticism and ‘that silky first touch’. Accordingly, we want a piece of these sporting gods, to claim for ourselves a part of their prestige. The truth is, however, theirs is a status we can never attain. Only a tiny percentage of those who idolise professional football players will follow in their footsteps.

Perhaps, footballers grew up alongside others better suited to being collective role models. However, those kids won’t be thrust into the limelight in their adolescence. Their development is slower, more patient, and less exposed to public scrutiny. They finish school, they go to college. Professional life begins at 21 or later, after the educational system has prepared them for their responsibilities. There’s no hero worship for the teen sophist; no scrum for autographs; no posters on the wall; no coke-fuelled five-man gangbangs in Marbella (at least, not more than once per summer). We don’t expect them to attain a level of achievement on a par with their experienced counterparts. They aren’t required to churn out asinine quotes at press conferences full of older men and women eager to take their words wildly out of context. They don’t live out their young lives in fear of the journalist’s keyboard, the analyst’s tongue (Martin Keown – shudder), or the chairman’s transfer policy.

So, if we don’t expect our intellectual figureheads to mature surrounded by such pressure, why do we think footballers ought to? After all, they’re paid to play football, nothing more; supplying ideals or inspiration is not the task of a sportsperson. Yet, these are things footballers so regularly provide. When you can’t connect with those who should be leading you, you look somewhere else. That footballers fill roles best performed by others is a reflection of wider society, not of football. There are certain occupations – teachers, clergymen, politicians – whose very existence necessitates that their members be role models, but how often do they fail to do so? If a randy priest or BBC presenter can’t control himself in the sacristy or the green room, why should we get upset when Liam Ridgewell wipes his arse with a bit of cash? If the moral bankruptcy of our society means that the England back four has become the barometer of social norms, football is not to blame.

And then there’s that old cherry of considering social class as a marker of a footballer’s capability to, well, not be like John Terry. Although the majority of players – in the UK at least – are working class, the relevance pretty much ends there. The culture of the game, not the class, shapes the actions of its players. It takes teenagers out of school, thrusts them into a hostile, competitive environment, and makes them rich beyond the grasp of most their age, yet still we act surprised when they ‘misbehave’. Rich young men – in the wider scheme of things even footballing veterans are relatively youthful – have the means to enjoy themselves, and do so, often in the company of several cubic metres worth of hard drugs and silicon breasts. Regardless of class, footballers escape reality in the same manner as their contemporaries; they just do it on a bigger scale and in the glare of a camera lens. In the Premier League alone there are more than five hundred players; given a sample size that big, it’s hardly a shock that there are a few who don’t equate fame and a fat salary with the ascetic lifestyle. Moreover, what of the El Hadji Diouf paradox?: a superficially disagreeable individual, yet one who runs a children’s charity and whom, as a pioneer of the escape from poverty, is the source of inspiration for thousands in his homeland.

The reality is that most footballers are decent human beings, but it just so happens that their lives are not the ones in which we tend to be interested. Moderation doesn’t write headlines, fill column inches, or generate legions of retweet-happy Followers. There have been countless cases of footballers using their wealth and fame to make a positive difference or stepping out from the pack and contributing to political and social change that should have been undertaken by others. For the most part, players’ actions serve as their words. Footballers are role models, and though they so often fill the vacuum created by the absence of any other relevant icons in the lives of their fans, equally often they simply don’t recognise – or care – that this is the case. The point is, however, they shouldn’t have to. Nowhere in their contracts does it state that they must serve as the moral compass of their society. That, frankly, is not their responsibility. 

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thft | 2013