Clinton van der Berg.
In the 1990s, former basketball star Charles Barkley railed in a Nike advertisement that he “wasn’t paid to be a role model”, saying that was the job of parents.

It was a snarky line that won him few friends. One rival, Karl Malone, hit back: “Charles, I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models ... we are chosen.”

It was a glib response to an issue that continues to rage.

Just days ago, Tiger Woods reminded us of his majesty by winning the Masters for the fifth time. It was a triumph of fortitude and resilience but was no atonement. His past behaviour will forever haunt him and can’t be forgotten, even as goodwill and admiration wash over him in the wake of his Augusta heroics.

The danger of holding up sport stars as heroes and role models is writ large by the recent behaviour of another elite athlete in Israel Folau. He is demonstrably the best rugby player in Australia, a supreme attacker with outrageous athletic gifts. But his recent Instagram rant, saying that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators”, was straight out of the gutter and not in keeping with the religious values he espouses. The cult of celebrity can be a dangerous thing and Folau joins a long list of sporting figures who have disgraced themselves.

One of the sharpest reactions came from former England and Highlanders loose forward James Haskell, who tweeted: “This is the biggest load of sh*t I have ever read. Sport has no place for this crap. Keep it to hate groups @IzzyFolau , you aren't spreading the lords word. You are spreading hate. You are an unreal player, but a f***ing misinformed bigot.”

Elevating sportsmen to a position they don’t deserve is dangerous, but, incongruously, they can be inspiring and influential. To hear Natalie du Toit or Lucas Radebe tell their stories is uplifting, especially in a country like ours.

But for every Lucas or Natalie there’s an Oscar Pistorius or a Hansie Cronjé, sportsmen with feet of clay. That’s the fascinating thing about sport: even terrible people can excel.

What’s inarguable is that athletes are often contracted to represent their teams in the community, helping promote their sport to schools and the like. This places additional responsibility on them and given their profile they cannot reasonably expect the same level of privacy as a regular Joe. There is a sharper focus and they’d be foolish to pretend, or wish, otherwise.

The trouble, as Malone said, is how many youngsters idolise their heroes and make them role models whether they like it or not. The pity is that proper role models, seldom recognised, are community leaders, teachers, doctors and scientists; people who make real and substantial differences in their quiet corners.

Barkley might have been right in his assertion all those years ago, but there’s an inherent expectation that he be held to higher standards on account of his profile.

Someone like Folau can have extreme beliefs, abhorrent as they are. But to fan the flames of hate from his lofty position is to abuse that very position.

You needn’t be a moral exemplar, but being decent, considerate and respectful are qualities we demand of all people, not just high-level athletes.


Sunday Tribune

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