Matching the AFL Grand Final last month may have been traumatic for some—depending on who you supported. One thing that would have brought a smile to most faces, though, was watching the traditional presentation of premiership medallions to the winning team by young players who had been nominated for the 2018 NAB ‘Auskicker of the Year’.
You could see how much the moment meant to the kids as they were able to interact, however briefly, with their sporting heroes. While some seemed a little overwhelmed by the excitement and the crowd, they all sported massive grins as they took part. The players clearly understood the importance of the moment, too, and it was delightful to watch them interact with children who looked up to them—both literally and metaphorically.
We often hear athletes caught up in some sort of scandal complain that they are paid to play sport, not be role models, and that they shouldn’t be held to higher standards. But with great wages comes greater responsibility, and the difference between an amateur athlete and a professional one is about more than the level they play at.
Being in the public arena means that people are watching, and for athletes, many of those eyes are young ones. It’s not just what they do on the field that influences the behaviour of their fans—though anyone who plays sport at a local level can tell you how quickly behaviour at the top is mirrored right down to every level—but how they behave outside of the game, too.
Like it or not, professional athletes have to realise that fame and fortune come with responsibilities. Drink driving, drug abuse or inappropriate behaviour are not okay for anyone, but these actions take on an added significance when they are seen by thousands of young fans who just want to be like their heroes.
There are more subtle forms of influence that have the potential for harm, even though they may be legally acceptable. There is growing concern about the way in which sports betting is impacting young people, exacerbated by the fact that during a game they are bombarded by TV ads that show their heroes spruiking mobile apps and betting services.
It’s not all negative, though. Athletes have the ability to make a positive difference, whether it is encouraging young people to choose healthier lifestyles or demonstrating the way in which sport can improve society. It is so encouraging to see many athletes choosing to use the platform sport has given them as a force for good.
It might be simply demonstrating good sportsmanship and respect for others, or by throwing their weight behind charities—like Glenn McGrath’s work raising funds to battle cancer, or the Collingwood Football Club’s support for the Salvos. But we don’t have to look very far to see that the way athletes act has an influence that will linger long after their sporting career ends.