Floyd Mayweather Jr. poses for photographers after defeating Conor McGregor in a super welterweight boxing match. Photo: Isaac Brekken/AP Photo
Floyd Mayweather Jr. poses for photographers after defeating Conor McGregor in a super welterweight boxing match. Photo: Isaac Brekken/AP Photo

Don't put sports stars on a pedestal

By Clinton van der Berg Time of article published Sep 3, 2017

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One of the inevitable memes floating around on social media in the aftermath of “The Money Fight” reflected a picture of Floyd Mayweather now being “51-0 - if you include the time he beat his wife”.

The great boxer is, of course, officially 50-0 after the circus show in Las Vegas, but anyone with a long memory knows Mayweather has frequently had run-ins with the law. Six years ago he did jail time for beating up his girlfriend.

(In 2015, on a visit to SA, he fled from Nelson Mandela’s old jail cell on Robben Island, saying it was a horrible reminder of his own incarceration).

Even as the Las Vegas hype swept up all and sundry, several naysayers questioned the boxer’s wild popularity, not least here where violence against women is endemic.

The question over whether sportsmen are role models or not has lingered in the air in recent weeks, particularly as two members of the All Blacks recently had off-field peccadilloes exposed.

Aaron Smith has been involved in a grubby episode said to have involved sexual escapades in a disabled bathroom with a woman who wasn’t his partner. There have since been allegations of cover-ups and lies, suffice to say that Smith is enduring a lousy time.

When the scandal broke last year, he was banned for one match and sent home from the tour of South Africa.

More recently, team-mate Jerome Kaino woke to the horror of a front-page report in an Australian newspaper claiming he was carrying on with an affair. His wife posted a Facebook status with a single word, “Devastated”, before hurriedly deleting the post.

Kaino was promptly put on a plane and sent home.

“Shaggers shame All Blacks brand,” read another brutal headline.

The All Blacks famously have a “no dickheads” policy and these episodes were much in conflict - and not a little ironic.

Ryan Crotty of New Zealand (L) celebrates with teammate Aaron Smith after scoring a try during game 1 of the Bledisloe Cup between the Australian Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at ANZ Stadium in Sydney. Photo: David Moir/EPA

The immediate consequence of these scandals was that they were big news. As public figures, that’s what they unwittingly sign up for. Fame and celebrity is a by-product of excellence and given how the public is obsessed with celebrities, it’s inevitable that their every move is watched and analysed, more so in the vacuous age of social media.

Sportsmen are often bemused at how fame creeps up on them. Many have no idea of how to manage it. One minute you’re Mister Nobody, the next you’re all the rage.

Some embrace it, but many others try their best to avoid the trappings.

At the heart of the issue is whether sportsmen deserve to be held up as role models at all. To be fair, they seldom describe themselves thus; it’s a label we casually throw on them, as if they qualify merely by being in the limelight.

The matter is further complicated when sportsmen, or indeed teams, consciously sow an image of wholesomeness and goodness. The All Blacks go out of their way to do so, their mantra being “better people make better All Blacks”.

It’s a line that rings hollow when the high-jinks of its members are exposed.

Lately, Mike Tyson has been described as a role model, a curious twist given how he used to be addicted to chaos in his fighting prime. He was vicious and violent both in and out of the ring, had a stint in jail, dabbled in drugs and suffered from alcoholism. When he visited South Africa nine years ago, he was bloated and angry. He blew a gasket when a local newspaper ran a piece saying how aggressive he was.

Tyson is now a much-changed figure who has utterly transformed himself from the “baddest man on the planet” to a cultural icon who is well read, acts in films, plays himself in a much-lauded one man show that had a Broadway run and carries out charity work.

If you consider how he’s rehabilitated himself - he says he was a “psycho” all those years ago - Tyson’s story is inspiring and far more suggestive of a role model.

The problem of presuming that sportsmen automatically have redeeming qualities is ours. So too the mistake of believing them to be role models. We put them on a pedestal and are horrified when it comes crashing down, Oscar Pistorius being the most obvious example.

The grand illusion is all our own.


Sunday Independent

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