Every society has individuals that are meant to be perfect in all aspects. But why do we have a need to elevate these people to such lofty heights, only to be ironically vilified when they inevitably fall from grace?

Sport, in particular, is a microcosm of society where the need for role models is a powerful phenomenon. Sport is seen as embodying the very essence of human achievements that are the object of envy by mere mortals. Ironically, the sports person is elevated to a status based only on their sporting achievements, which is by default a skewed and dangerous practice.

Once an individual is respected, envied, lauded by others, in particular the sporting public, they are part of a process that is difficult to control. Initially, the accolades are well received. A relationship develops between the athlete, success, and the fan. A relationship that initially begins innocent enough and is unconditional, based on their exploits which is loved by the fan and the object of envy. As this relationship develops, however, other expectations begin to form. Expectations, assumptions and then demands as the athlete is morphed into a figure of utter perfection.

They are the moral ideal that does not exist in reality, at least not all the time. The need to drive this ideal is by the public, the individual, who has emotionally invested in the relationship. The obsessive, adoring fan, whose life hinges on the ideals of their sporting heroes and team, to fulfil their fantasy. This is used to compensate for the reality of their own lives, often filled with personal failures, sporting and otherwise. They need the role model to compensate reality with fantasy.

I suspect that the athlete initially is oblivious to the ramifications. The pressure to be perfection is enormous. It is a different issue seeking perfection on the sporting arena, compared with other aspects of their existence. Indeed, the former is soon regarded as a much simpler task than the scrutiny placed by the media on other aspects of their lives.

A role model of any kind is presumably someone that is a representation, an archetype, for others to aspire to. To model, reflect and then integrate into one’s own psyche. But only the good parts. Sporting perfection and artistry become associated with bravery, valour,competitiveness, fair play, respect, and honour for the opponent. These are qualities that are extended into their personal lives outside of their sporting exploits. Whether the athlete wants it or not. The relationship is exacerbated by an ever growing adoring public, the athlete’s management who are quick to exploit their exploits, and a voracious media.

Initially, if the athlete has special sporting qualities, it feeds into the construction of their ego. Their sense of self importance, specialness. As the ego grows, so does the sense of responsibility. But the responsibility demanded by others can quickly become incongruous with the responsibility felt by the athlete. Indeed, as the ego grows, so does the athlete’s belief that they are above such responsibilities, moral and otherwise. They begin to believe their elevation is justified, then with it a grandiosity and narcissism that treats the fan base with contempt. Sometimes to delusional intensity. Transgress, and the adoring public becomes the moral judge and executioner, often mirrored in real life by the legal system. How often do we hear the role model athlete apologise after their fall? Where was the moral bind and conflict as they were committing their transgression?

Perfection does not exist in reality and is a psychological construct. Fantasy soon gives way to reality, in spite of the efforts of the spin doctors. Inevitably, the athlete will deviate from the chosen path. The only question is what, and by how much. The fan, once they are told of the indiscretion, will react with the spurning of a jilted lover. Or a disciple whose religious guru has sinned. Or a child who witnesses the fallibility of their parents. The condemnation will be swift versus those who will argue for understanding and forgiveness. This all depends on the personality structure of the fan, ultimately. Maturity as opposed to immaturity. The capacity to process one’s anger of disappointment using a range of healthy or unhealthy defence mechanisms.

There have been numerous examples of such processes over the years in sport. Such judgements are not affected by the passage of time. The expectation of the role model is that they at least did not transgress during the time they were elevated. Pre-morbid, unacceptable behaviour is tolerated under the new regime. But if the public has been duped, lied to, manipulated then the model must be destroyed. Or at least tainted, depending on the circumstances and whether there is room for atonement. I suspect this position depends on the degree of sporting achievements, although this can also be used as part of the devaluation process.

It is inevitable that, like other aspects of reality, that an athlete will default to other aspects of their personality. That is, they are human. And for this they are unforgivable. Not for being imperfect, but for proving to the rest of society that they are also imperfect. Sporting excellence does not necessarily mean a virtuous existence. Indeed, it is the other aspects of an individual’s personality that ultimately comes through. Sporting achievements do not make the role model. An individual either has those qualities in their psychic structures or not. Excellence in sport augments those qualities, not create them. Those qualities may be good or bad. That is why so much work is done on the budding athlete before they are drafted.

Why is it that so many sportspeople are voted Australian of the Year? Because of their sporting achievements. But have they lived faultless lives? Of course not. Are they perfect human beings? No. Are they the product of the human psyche which projects its own weaknesses through idealisation and identification? Yes.

So long as the human psyche exists as it does, so will the need to create ideals as constructs that we then project onto those deemed worthy. The successful sports person is such a person befitting of the title of role model. Whether they like it or not.

One final thought. When an athlete does something against their role model status, do not say “It was out of character”. This is a false statement that is often used as a defence. In fact, it was always in their character. Just not seen yet. A more accurate statement would be “It was not what we expected from them.”


Author Dr Phillip Salonikis – June 23, 2016

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