Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Trouble with Boys

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Trouble with Boys

Article excerpt

"I am not a role model," the basketball player Charles Barkley announced in a 1993 Nike advert. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court."

Those who manage and comment on football would have done well to heed Barkley's words this past fortnight. In Britain, we still expect our sports stars to Behave like role models-and feel outraged when they harass women in nightclubs, get convicted of drink-driving, arouse suspicions of drug-taking and thump each other during the half-time break. Journalists expect today's multimillionaire football stars to conform to the standards of a golden age when footballers were supposedly men of impeccable character who never drank more than half a pint after a match. No matter that for every Gary Lineker or Bobby Charlton, there has always been a Paul Gascoigne or George Best. Continually harping on about the "good old days" remains one of football fans' most distinctive characteristics.

Still, the ideal of the sporting role model is now so outdated that its very persistence is intriguing. Where does it come from? And why has it survived so long?

The belief that sportsmen have a special duty to behave well goes back to the 19th century. In the public schools presided over by headmasters such as Thomas Arnold, there arose a belief that character was the chief repository of Christian virtue. Character, according to the proponents of "muscular Christianity", could be instilled through a combination of vigorous moral instruction and games-playing. This led to the belief that physical robustness and moral purity were in some way connected.

But just because a person is capable of submitting to one type of discipline (required to become a top-flight athlete) is no guarantee that he or she is more likely to submit to another (behaving like a paragon). …

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