Not in the job description: The unspoken duties of a sporting idol

By Ben Lovell-Smith | Sport Editor

When it rains it pours. After being exposed on social media once again, Mason Greenwood has begun to build quite a rap sheet. Yet, it is easy to forget that the young starlet remains just 18 years of age. These events put the spotlight on the role of a sporting idol within society, and how the cloud-like pedestal they sit on is a dangerous place to be. Whilst events over the last fortnight have also demonstrated, even the ultimate role models walk a slack tightrope. 

Former NBA star Charles Barkley once said “I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” The statement is true, we cannot just expect all sports stars to tow the line, they are individuals at the end of the day. However as Peter Parker would say, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. But we haven’t all had the benefit of a fantastic uncle like Benjamin Parker. Nor a real tight grip on media agenda.

A perfect sporting idol contains a balance of great skill and righteous character. Role models are those who offer us direction in sport and in the realities of life. Whilst Greenwood, nor any sportsman ever wanted to be a role model. Ultimately anyone becomes a role model once they obtain an influence. People aspire to sports stars as they can make improvements in personal life on and off the field, through imitation. In this way, helping people to achieve their own goals. Those in the spotlight have a duty to those who are not.

This is the second week in a row that Greenwood has hit the headlines for anti-social behaviour. This time historical pictures emerged of the youngster taking laughing gas with a friend in a private apartment. The event comes just a week after Greenwood and England teammate Phil Foden hooked up with a pair of Icelandic girls whilst on England duty, breaking the team’s social distancing policy. Meanwhile, ironically, Greenwood and Foden have both been nominated in the conveniently named ‘Golden Boy’ shortlist for the 2019/20 Premier League Season.

Greenwood has not been the only athlete to burn in the spotlight recently. Just less than a fortnight ago, world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic was found guilty of injuring an official and was immediately defaulted from the US Open tournament. The incident occurred in the fourth round match against Pablo Carreno Busta. Djokovic hit the ball in frustration without looking and had the misfortune of placing it right in the throat of the line judge who was unawares.

But Djokovic was criticised most heavily for his conduct after the match. He refused to talk to the media and swiftly left the US Open grounds. Former British number one Tim Henman was highly critical of Djokovic’s actions. “There is no excuse for not doing the media and not apologising. He needs to deal with this incident, first and foremost”. 

By contrast, Owen Farrell, who was sent off for a vicious ‘clothesline’ tackle on Charlie Atkinson, was praised by Will Greenwood on the Sky Sports rugby podcast for waiting on the touch line to shake the hand of Atkinson after the incident. Farrell is England captain and admired by many as an example of the complete professional, but like Djokovic, he was also heavily shot down for a genuine mistake. At the top level, there is no room for error, but it is vital that one must hold good conduct if they are to weather the storm.

On a tangent to this, it could be seen as a great injustice that James Ward-Prowse received such plaudits for his ‘dark arts’ tactics. England fans spotted on social media that Ward-Prowse deliberately scuffed the penalty spot, just moments before Iceland’s Birkir Bjarnason’s penalty was blazed over the bar. In a post-match interview he even admitted to it, although honourably conceded he was in fact just time wasting. But cheating is okay, as long as it is in your favour.

Clearly the scrutiny of the sporting world is both harsh and unruly, yet inconsistent and changing. Whether they like it or not, sports stars are expected to be perfect idols. To children as well as to adults. This means reflecting certain values of society that are considered important. 

However, a consummate role model is robotic and uninspiring. A sporting idol must be human, identifiable but brilliant, attainable yet just out of reach. Greenwood’s slip ups are condemned by so many, but who hasn’t made mistakes in the past? Tyson Fury is admired because of how he bounced back from dark times and personal shortcomings. Greenwood has an opportunity to do just that, after all he is still just eighteen. Could this be the making of the man?

I hope that Greenwood remains unaffected, he possesses extraordinary talent, on the ball and off it. He is an ambipedal centre forward and is known to take penalties and free kicks with both his left and right foot, allowing him to be equally dangerous on the left or right flanks. Even at such a young age he has demonstrated his level on the highest possible stage, and clearly there is even more yet to come.

Greenwood’s mistakes may be a blessing rather than a curse. A platform to show a human side to a person who has the talent and potential to become immortal. Within both football and sporting worlds.

This saga of slip ups demonstrates the pressure that society places upon those in the spotlight. This a time where we are trying to focus on the importance of mental health, particularly among young men. Perhaps, from now on, we should consider what we demand from a sporting idol. Is it realistic? Would I want to be forgiven? Learning from a mistake can be one of the best ways to progress. It is what makes us human.

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