The Role Model Thing: Perspectives from the Women’s Game

Photo by Thomas Hawk from flickr

The periodic debate about whether athletes should be role models (recently, think John Terry, Tiger Woods, or marketing Women’s Professional Soccer) offers much fodder for provocative discussion.  What are the obligations of sports celebrity?  Is it reasonable to expect athletes to be good at things other than their sport?  Do children really model their behavior and decisions based on tabloid reports about sports heroes?

What the role model debate usually does not offer is systematic analysis or evidence about whether athletes actually have any influence on other people’s behavior—an absence I became aware of a few years ago when working with one of my University of Portland students on a thesis project.  At that time Stephanie Lopez (now married and playing in WPS and with the Women’s National Team as Stephanie Cox) had a vested stake in the debate.  She was on the verge of playing with the US Women’s National Team at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup in China, was in the midst of a college soccer career that would earn her the Senior CLASS Award “presented each year to the outstanding senior NCAA Division I Student-Athlete of the Year in women’s soccer,” and was even identified in an article on as “soccer’s unassuming role model.”

Bright, earnest, and intellectually curious, Cox wanted to try and explore whether and how elite athletes matter as role models—and she had access to a pretty good sample through her participation with the US Women’s National Team and with the Portland Pilots.  So we looked at the somewhat limited existing scholarly literature on role models, surveyed her teammates with some standard personality inventories and open-ended questions about being a role model, and tried to systematically consider what being a role model is actually about.  Cox did an excellent job with the project, but only had a semester before moving on to start her professional career.

So I went back to the original survey data and put together an article that, after the usual slow slog of academic life, was recently published in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching (if anyone is interested in seeing the full article and doesn’t have access to a good library, feel free to send me an email).  Which is all to say that Cox should get the credit for gathering the data, and I should get the blame for the interpretations—including the bits offered here as an attempt to contribute a small something to the debate: what does it say about soccer and society that the role model thing keeps coming up?  And what does being a role model mean for the players themselves?

The role model thing in concept?

The role model debate, while common to a variety of sports, has been a particularly prominent part of American women’s soccer.  After the dramatic success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the USA, for example, the original WUSA professional league was premised partially on the idea of the players as role models: “With this league,” claimed US team captain Carla Overbeck, “there will be 200 role models who are very willing to make a positive impact on some child’s life.”  And then when the league failed, Julie Foudy said, “I miss [WUSA] because young girls and boys in local communities where we were playing got to see strong, confident women as good role models on a weekly basis.”

The wisdom of emphasizing role modeling as part of a business model for women’s sports is worth debating—and interesting versions are available elsewhere (see, for example, Wendy Parker’s piece here on Pitch Invasion and Fake Sigi’s response).  But since I don’t have any particular insight into the business side of the debate, my interest is more in some good social science questions embedded in emphasizing women’s players as role models.

Why, for example, does the emphasis on being role models tend to be so much more prominent in the women’s game than the men’s game?  Sociologists think it has to do with broader social inequalities, pointing out that the disproportionate emphasis on women and on racial minorities as role models implicitly highlights individual behavior and obscures social forces as influences on success.  The idea here is that framing Mia Hamm or Brianna Scurry as role models conveys a misleading message of bountiful opportunity—success is simply about individual hard work and talent, so institutional discrimination and structural inequality can be safely ignored.

And then there is the question of why we expect athletes to be good at stuff besides their sport anyway?  Part of it is probably what social psychologists call the “halo effect”—the tendency to mistakenly assume that greatness in one domain of life should generalize to others (for an example, see this analysis applying the halo effect to the Tiger Woods situation).  But the most interesting explanation I came across suggests that it also has to do with broader social changes and the increasing attention to celebrity culture both in sports and elsewhere.

It turns out that early interest in role models by researchers and theorists was focused on the concept as limited to very specific roles.  A teacher would be a role model for teaching, a business manager would be a role model for management, and a soccer player would be a role model for the specific requirements of the game.  But a funny thing has happened over time—the concept has broadened to suggest that a role model should be an exemplar for a comprehensive set of traits that make for a good life.  It is no longer good enough for Hope Solo to be a really good goalkeeper—she now has to be a humanitarian, a fashionista, a social analyst, a business woman, a moral exemplar, a master communicator, and many other things that have little to do with her ability to keep the ball out of the back of the net.

Scholar Chris Rojek argues that these strange expectations have to do with our modern, commodified cultures of sports and celebrity: “the leading Sports Stars, in common with the leading celebrities from celebrity culture, are adopted as role models by fans and their lives are followed as parables of normative behavior.”  Why?  Because as a society we have a need to believe that the people to whom we give insane amounts of both attention and money deserve it.  We want to believe that John Terry’s wealth, fame, and England captaincy are about more than his being a really good central defender.  But, as Terry has made obvious, it is not.

The reality is that elite soccer players, and elite athletes of any stripe, are often relatively young people, still in the process of identity formation, who have devoted themselves primarily to their sport—often at the expense of education, diverse relationships, and other life experiences.  Of course, there are exceptions.  Some athletes are broadly talented, exceptional people.  But it turns out that when you survey something like morality athletes tend to come out as, on average, less developed than non-athletes.

So while I tend to think sports has the potential to do much good, it is far from an automatic process.  At an individual level there is little evidence for the old cliché that “sports builds character.”  But does that hold true for that group so often held up as role models: high level women’s players in the US?

The role model thing in practice?

Cox and I ended up surveying 20 players from the US women’s national team as they prepared for the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, along with 19 players on the highly ranked University of Portland team.  We expected there might be some average differences between players from the two teams, but couldn’t find many—so in the end we aggregated them together.  We also thought we might be able to separate out some of the players as particularly exemplary role models, and asked the players, some team administrators, and groups of fans to identify players on each team that stood out.  But it turned out there was very little consensus about what constituted an “exemplary” role model—another interesting indication that while we use the term all the time, we don’t exactly know what it means.

One piece of the survey tried to do some brief personality assessment, looking at basic traits and things like “generativity,” “empathy,” and “helpfulness” that we thought might particularly dispose the players towards being positive role models.  But when we compared the players’ average scores with those of other non-athlete groups there were essentially no significant differences.  While our measures were somewhat crude, the basic finding was that the players did not have a particularly distinctive constellation of measurable traits relevant to role-model status—like any group of diverse individuals the players were high on certain traits, low on others, and it all evened out when averaged together.

Another piece of the survey asked the players about their own role models while growing up.  Consistent with the findings of other researchers, the players overwhelmingly (82%) identified their own family members—brothers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and other people with whom they have had much direct interaction.  36% also identified female soccer players as having been role models, while 21% identified male athletes (though only one of the 39 players identified a male soccer player).  The reality is that even the best soccer players mostly model their behavior off the people they interact with every day, rather than people they primarily know through the media.

A third piece of the survey asked the players about the characteristics the players associate with being a role model.  Most of these answers focused on what I called meritocratic personality traits in the article—things such as being hard working, dedicated, tough, and positive.  These responses fit with Rojek’s suggestion that sport is “one of the paradigmatic institutions that articulate and elaborate the meritocratic ideal and reinforce achievement culture.  In sport the value of individual discipline, training, teamwork, endurance, determination and ambition is potently stressed.”

Though that meritocratic ideal may somewhat undervalue the importance of opportunities, inequalities, and resources, I was most struck by its prominence in our surveys compared to responses emphasizing sports specific skills (which were only identified by 2 of 39 players).  Considering that the players are public figures because of their athletic ability and were taking a survey specifically targeting soccer players, it was interesting that hardly anyone seemed to think of the way they played the game as part of being a role model.

A final piece of the survey asked the players about how comfortable they were being role models, and how central it was to who they are as people.  As a general theme here the players felt very willing and able to be role models, but it did not seem central to their self-concept.  Modeling comprehensive personal traits might seem to be a daunting task for relatively young women in a specialized athletic role, but it’s what we’ve come to expect.  Should we?

The role model thing in an ideal world?

It might seem obvious to suggest that soccer players should primarily be models and reference points for their soccer abilities, but that goes against a pervasive cultural discourse.  Still, in trying to systematically analyze that discourse, it strikes me that for both the players and the fans it would be useful (and maybe even liberating) to recognize and reflect on the ways the popular concept of athletes as comprehensive role models is more of a social construction than a real experience.

Towards that end, one of the most thought-provoking perspectives I came across in this research came from sport philosopher Randolph Feezell.  He points out that well-intentioned efforts to hold up athletes as comprehensive role models and moral exemplars puts them in the position of implicitly endorsing values they often have not reflected upon, and distracts from a more appropriate appreciation for their physical and athletic abilities.  Feezell suggests that even well-intentioned programs placing athletes in non-athletic settings for purposes of community service are problematic—they reinforce the misleading notion that athletes are morally special.  From this perspective, soccer players should be presented to the community as models of athletic excellence.  Period.

Of course, that may not be realistic—the cultural discourse of elite soccer players as role models is probably not going anywhere.  And that is not entirely a bad thing.  Women athletes in particular have done much to destabilize gender stereotypes, and everyone—soccer players and otherwise—can do with reminders about the importance of social responsibility.

So the point here is really just to try to think about the role model thing with a bit more precision.  I know, for example, that Stephanie Cox during her time with the LA Sol made an effort to work on a mentoring program where players went to work with school children directly and regularly—using their status as part of a quiet habit rather than a marketing abstraction.  And as a teacher I’m impressed when any of my students, athletes or not, make earnest efforts to engage their communities for the better.  But as a soccer fan I know that should not matter as much as the simple reality that Cox is a really good left-sided defender.  Expecting anything else seems to say more about society than it does about soccer players or about the game.

*Note: In case anybody is curious, some of the references we drew from in the article that are particularly related to what I’ve discussed above include:  Addis, A. “Role Models and the Politics of Recognition” in University of Pennsylvania Law Review;  Crosset, T.W., “Role Model: A Critical Assessment of the Application of the Term to Athletes” in Sports in School: The Future of an Institution; Shields, D. and Bredemeier, B., “Can Sports Build Character?” in Character Psychology and Education; Shropshire, K.L. “Race, Youth, Athletes, and Role Models” in Paradoxes of Youth and Sport.

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