More Than Their Job’s Worth: Should We Expect Footballers to be Role Models?

Footballers often get a bad rep. There have been many instances in the past of them behaving badly and not setting the example many think they should for children the world over. This has been the week where we have seen the worst of professional footballers once again. On Sunday, the nation awoke to the news that Wayne Rooney had been charged with a drink driving offence whilst at the wheel of the Volkswagon Beetle of a mystery blonde, who claimed they had kissed – all while his pregnant wife was on holiday with their 3 sons. Then, on Monday night, television cameras caught Dele Alli making an offensive gesture during England’s game with Slovakia at Wembley. These are disappointing incidents but there are cases of footballers actually being stand up citizens believe it or not. Take Juan Mata for instance, who recently declared his intention to donate 1% of his weekly wage to charity and urged his contemporaries to do the same.  All of these cases, good and bad, beg the question – should we expect professional footballers to be role models to our children?

First thing I’d like to point out is that I am a father myself and I expect nobody to bring up my children but myself and my wife. It is down to us first and foremost, as parents, to teach our children right and wrong. I have strong values and hope that my children will grow up with the same moral grounding. For that to happen I have to make sure that is my wife and I who are instilling those beliefs in our children. To blame my child’s ills (of course they have none, as any parent would say about their children) on the actions of a man they neither know, nor will they have any sort of relationship with, would be a dereliction of my duty as a parent.

That being said, to my children at least, I’m not cool. My children are 4 years old and 18 months old respectively. My 18 month old is starting to realise the love she has for her parents, but my 4 year old is beginning to – how can I put this – ‘lose’ that love. She now sees her dad as pain in the backside who has rules and doesn’t let her do certain things. I am coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be the centre of my daughters world for much longer. Soon she will be developing her own interests and tastes. As much as I won’t like it, the people she will start to look up to and dress like will most probably be celebrities.

As I have said, it is ultimately down to me to make sure that she doesn’t follow the actions of irresponsible people. But there are kids out there that will. When they see footballers asleep on the strip in Magaluf or smoking in a pool in Las Vegas, they think that’s the life. When you add into it that kids then see the money that footballers on, then it’s a job that becomes even more desirable. You ask anyone what is the first thing that they think of when they think of professional footballers, they will most likely tell you that they are overpaid prima-donna’s who throw themselves on the floor a lot and don’t give one about me or you. That is most likely true for about 5% of the professional football world – but what about the other 95%? Are there not good people in football? Do they not count?

What about the Juan Mata’s of the world? What the Antonio di Natale’s? Antonio di Natale is a legend for Udinese. He played 385 times at the Friuli and scored 191 goals, not to mention 11 goals in 42 appearances for Italy. Not many people know that di Natale turned down a move to Juventus in 2010 because his family were settled in Udine. Is that not the type of parent we want our children to grow up to be, to sacrifice their own ambitions for the happiness of their own children? In 2012, Udinese midfielder Piermario Morosini was on loan at Livorno when he died of a sudden cardiac arrest on the pitch during a game. He left behind a sister with no other living relatives and no other source of income. di Natale stepped forward and took financial responsibility for Morosini’s sister in the wake of her brother’s death. He didn’t have to, it wasn’t his sister, but somebody was in dire need of help. Is this not the type of person we want our children to be, to look after someone when nobody else will? This story in particular was well publicised at the time but there has been no coverage since, not in Britain at least.

What about the Kelly Smith’s of the world? Kelly Smith is England women’s record appearance holder and goalscorer, scoring 46 goals in 117 games for the national side. She also won the UEFA Womens Cup with Arsenal in 2007 and played professionally in the USA with New Jersey Lady Stallions, Philadelphia Charge, New Jersey Wildcats and the Boston Breakers. But did you know that the poster girl for womens football in England has battled depression and alcoholism? After breaking her leg playing for the Wildcats in 2004, Smith sunk into depression and turned to alcohol. She returned to England fearing her career was over when she checked into the Sporting Chance clinic and overcame her demons. It was 3 years after this that she won the UEFA Womens Cup with Arsenal, helping the club complete the quadruple. Kelly Smith shows that depression and alcoholism don’t just affect men, but women too. What a fine example to follow for any female looking to recover from a horrible mental illness.

You may or may not have heard of these cases. If you have then it will either have been at the time or very sparingly since. The media do not publicise cases like the those of Antonio di Natale or Kelly Smith, or even Leonardo Bonucci who has been criticised this summer for turning down the might of Chelsea and staying in Italy in his “comfort zone” with AC Milan. The truth is Bonucci has a desperately ill young son who can’t fly and there is a hospital in Milan that can give him better care than any hospital in Turin, where he played for Juventus. But the media refuse to let that be public knowledge, instead Bonucci is a coward who has bottled his “big chance.” In reality he is a father doing right by his family.

There are plenty of examples of good role models in football that don’t get publicised. There are plenty of bad examples that do. There is a famous advert featuring basketball player Charles Barkley from 1993, in which he says, “I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Don’t ask me to bring up your kids.” He has a point in fairness, it is not his job to raise our children. But children looked up to him regardless. Whether he likes it or not, millions of children saw him spit at a fan while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1991 and, whether he likes it or not, there will have been kids out there who will have copied. Being a young Liverpool fan, I distinctly remember copying Robbie Fowler’s infamous snorting the line celebration from the Merseyside Derby at Anfield in April 1999. I didn’t have a clue what Fowler was doing but, as an 8 year old lad who had seen his idol do it, I celebrated every goal I scored in the park the same way. I also remember the racism incident between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra at Anfield in October 2011. The amount of kids I heard calling someone a ‘negrito’ in the aftermath was jarring.

It is true that footballers didn’t ask to be role models when they signed their first professional contract and, yes, they do get an unfair reputation at times. But you do get the sense that they want to have their cake and eat it too. They sign commercial deals to promote boots and other sportswear on the premise that the people seeing these adverts will buy what they are selling. In effect, they are making money out of being a role model. But as soon as they flip the bird to someone or are caught cheating on their pregnant wives, there is this quick abdication of their duty as someone in the public eye to set an example. They may not ask for the job but It’s certainly one that they should be taking seriously. Sportsman are quick to shirk the responsibility of being a role model. Well, sorry fellas, but it comes with the territory.