This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on October 12, 2012.
You may have heard that the USADA recently released a 202-page report blasting Lance Armstrong’s credibility as he continues to deny the use of banned performance enhancers on his way to a record seven straight Tour de France victories. The goal here isn’t to prove or disprove these claims of doping—frankly that job seems to have already been taken care of. But time and again we see cases of athletes behaving badly, followed by calls for them to serve as better role models, particularly for the nation’s youth. I’d say the real question here is: why are we as a country looking to athletes as role models in the first place, and are we taking away the wrong lessons from them?
Athletes may be many things, but at their core they are humans, just like us. And that means they are fallible, just like us. They’ve been put in the positions they are in because of freakish talent and the drive to push themselves (which is admirable), sometimes beyond what is allowed by the rules or the law (not so admirable). Many athletes find themselves on the wrong side of the legal system, while many others participate in charitable efforts both in their communities and nationwide.
The thing is, the same could be said of millions of everyday Americans.
The only reason athletes are role models at all is because they are visible. We live in a country where the debacles of the NFL’s replacement referees grab more eyeballs than the showdown between Turkey and Syria. A country where NBC prioritized a Kardashian interview over the 9/11 moment of silence (side by side video here). Why? Because these things are more immediately visible.
At this point I could probably veer off onto a whole rant about kids these days with their “swag” and “YOLO,” but why beat a dead horse?
Now some might pin all of this on the media—after all, they’re the ones giving airtime to people who aren’t serving as good examples for the rest of us. Wrong. The media’s job is to report on what people will listen to. Instead, we ought to point the finger right back at ourselves. If Lady Gaga’s latest fashion nightmare wasn’t grabbing our collective attention, it would slowly fade into obscurity. It’s our responsibility to distinguish a good role model from a bad one and pass that on to our children.
Say it with me: “It’s our responsibility.”
So when Kobe hits another game-winner with the clock winding down, feel free to encourage your child to respect that never-back-down-from-a-challenge attitude. But that doesn’t mean we also have to admire his adultery. Now, with Lance Armstrong, we may have just seen the fall of one of the last bastions of an athlete-hero. And that brings me to my last point.
While Lance Armstrong the man may have fallen off his pedestal, the causes he had championed should not. Livestrong has been incredible for raising cancer awareness and working toward cures. The fact that Armstrong may not have been who we thought he was doesn’t change the fact that cancer is every bit the major killer we know it is.
Our kids need causes to believe in. Fighting cancer is no less important because of Armstrong’s doping. And if we really want role models for our children, why don’t we step up ourselves? After all, in the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”