Friday, November 27, 2009

Athletes are role models, like it or not

(Ran 11/19)

Athletes are role models, whether they like it or not.

The problem is, the sports headlines each day are always of the troubled athlete, the cheaters or the losers, not the athletes we want our children to look up to.

Mike Tyson was recently arrested, again; this time for allegedly punching a photographer at the airport.

In September, LeGarrette Blount was suspended for the entire season by the University of Oregon for punching an opposing player in the Ducks season-opening loss to Boise State. (The suspension was recently lifted, with Blount having sat out eight games.)

Super Bowl-winning wide receiver Plaxico Burress recently reported to prison to begin a two-year sentence for carrying an unregistered handgun.

I know many athletes don’t ask to be role models, but they need to know and remember that it comes with the territory. When you are paid millions of dollars to play a sport, and you do it in front of a television audience of millions, it doesn’t matter what you asked for — you become a role model.

Of course I’m focusing on the bad examples. There are plenty of good stories out there; the problem is that we don’t hear about them.

On Saturday, boxer Manny Pacquiao won his the championship belt in his unprecedented 7th weight class. But Pacquiao is not only a boxer, he is also a humanitarian, and on Nov. 24, he will be honored for his humanitarianism in his home country of the Phillipeans, when he will be named a 2009 Gusi Peace Prize laureate. The world champion boxer is the award's only athlete among the elite group of 19 honorees from 16 different nations. Pacquiao is also a political force in his country, where he is running for congress.

Pacquiao is being honored for, among other things, braving the tumultuous conditions created by typhoons in the Philippines, where he has broken training to help save lives by delivering food into devastated areas.

Curtis Granderson of the Cleveland Indians was recently named MLB’s Man of the Year for his charitable work. Granderson established the "Grand Kids Foundation," a non-profit that focuses on improving opportunities for inner-city youth in the areas of education and youth baseball. He recently wrote a children's book entitled All You Can Be, which was illustrated by fourth-graders from across the state of Michigan that "encourages children to chase their dreams," and he is an active member of the Action Team national youth volunteer program, which is managed by the Major League Baseball Players Trust and Volunteers of America, and whose goal is to inspire and train the next generation of volunteers in more than 150 high schools across the U.S.

But these athletes don’t get the headlines that Tyson, Blount or Burress do; we are left thinking that boxers are thugs and that all football players are criminals.

What kind of example is this setting?

Yes, the athletes need to take responsibility and understand that they are role models, but the media must also understand this. Instead of focusing on Burress’s stupid decisions, we should publicize the generosity of Pacquiao or Granderson.

Pacquiao and Granderson’s stories are inspiring, and it is athletes like these who can make sports the great assembler that they can be. Sports can bring together people with little else in common, and athletes can encourage generosity in others.

On Monday, I read a story that began with me cringing, and ended with a satisfied smile, when the University of Tennessee turned an ugly situation into a good example for all student-athletes. Two of their star freshman football players were dismissed from the team after being charged in an attempted armed robbery (cringe). There is nothing the team could do about their crime, but instead of sitting on their hands and waiting for something to happen legally, Lane Kiffin – in a rare good move – dismissed them from the team, setting an example that all coaches should follow. It seems that the coaches at Tennessee understand that athletes are role models, and must behave as such.

Instead of focusing on athletes who make poor and sometimes criminal decisions, the media should focus on the positives of sports, those athletes and teams that rise above to succeed and inspire.

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