Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Former NFL star talks athletes’ struggle to live life as role models

For years, athletes have been viewed as icons for children growing up, idolizing their favorite players from their favorite teams. But after Nike ran a commercial in 1993 of Charles Barkley stating that he is not a role model, the question began to be tossed around: should athletes be role models?

That topic was opened for discussion Wednesday night at the University of Massachusetts when former National Football League running back Ricky Williams, ESPN personality Kevin Blackistone and UMass professor Todd Crosset debated the role of athletes in society.

Williams served as an example of an athlete that went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

Cade Belisle/Collegian

Prior to his first retirement from the NFL in 2004, Williams was an All-American  at the University of Texas and won the Heisman Trophy in 1998 as college football’s top player. That collegiate success eventually led to his selection in the 1999 NFL Draft.

Coming out of college, Williams said he embraced the idea of being a role model to children. He said he took a humble approach to his own success.

“When I think of being a role model, it isn’t trying to be perfect, it’s just trying to be myself,” Williams said.

But within five years of being one of football’s top rushers, a failed drug test for marijuana on three different occasions prompted him to retire abruptly in 2004.

His story is reminiscent of those of several other high-profile athletes who have experienced even harder falls from grace, most notably Alex Rodriguez, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. All three went from being at the top of their sport, both statistically and as role models, to struggling to find the support from the same fans that watched them play every day.

Crosset, who teaches the sociology of sport, believes that athletes find themselves in even harder spots than other celebrities because of their ties to teams with passionate fan bases.

“I think sports teams and athletes are in an unusual situation because the fans think that they’re helping the team win, so it’s creating a different relationship between the audience,” Crosset said.

Crosset said that sports fans are more invested in their teams, making them more passionate about the players they root for. This, he said, would naturally make fans more personally affected if their favorite athletes faced legal trouble than if it were their favorite actors or singers.

But there are other aspects that make it harder for athletes to fulfill the responsibility of being a role model, the speakers said.

“If people expect you to mess up, when you finally do, they keep reminding you about it,” Williams said. “I apologized to everyone for my actions, but I didn’t apologize for being myself. … If you’re trying to fit into something that people want you to be, that’s not something that I’m teaching to my kids.”

Athletes like Williams can get held to a higher standard, speakers said, but only once they make it onto the big stage.

Blackistone cited  Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel as an athlete whose immediate rise to stardom came at a cost. Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman trophy following a record-breaking season in 2012. Manziel was praised for his on-field accomplishments, but  it was not until a few weeks before the trophy announcement that the national media began paying attention to his off the field woes, which included an arrest in June of that year on charges of being in possession of a fake ID.

“It’s when people come into our consciousness that people become role models,” Blackistone said. “I know people that refused to vote for (Manziel) because he didn’t live up to the ‘Heisman standard.’”

Blackistone went on to add that he believes that much of the sporting world is still divided by race, with three major sports – football, baseball and basketball –  being dominated by athletes of color, while the sports media is primarily white.

When Williams broke into the NFL back in 1999, he said he frequently did interviews with his helmet on because it was his way of not giving in to what the media wanted him to be.

“The media didn’t care who was under the helmet, they were trying to create an image,” Williams said. “If they were really curious about who was under the helmet, I would have taken it off.”

Williams made a comeback to the NFL in 2007 and played until the 2011 season. But once an athlete is knocked the pedestal, it can be hard to get back on it, as Williams can attest to.

It took Woods two years to finally win a tournament after a sex scandal became publicized. Rodriguez has had glimpses of his old self, but has not been the same since his admission to steroids.

“For the most part, being an athlete is hard. It’s really hard,” Crossing said. “Most of the people are just trying to be excellent.”

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at pstroh[email protected] and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *