Ben Karpinski: The trouble with making rugby players our role models

As much as we look up to sporting stars as models of heroism, dedication, and outstanding performance on the field of play, we need to remember that they are human too, and the pressures on them are already great enough. 

By Ben Karpinski*

I remember when I first became a Western Province rugby fan as a child. It was such a thrill going to Newlands to watch the matches back then, and getting to run onto the field afterwards and play touch rugby with the other kids. Our excitement got the better of us, and those games quickly turned to full contact as we looked to emulate our heroes who had just performed so well on that very field.

Neil Burger was my favourite player of that time, the first sports star I ever considered a role model. He was a fast and strong winger, the epitome of what I wanted to be as a rugby player when I grew up.

Though nothing similar in build or ability, when I played I wanted to score tries like him, and this desire brought me closer to the game, and no doubt made me a better rugby player growing up. He was the perfect role model in my eyes, as his only function in my life was being an amazing rugby player.

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I was too young to care about his political views, what he thought about homosexuality, or if he recycled and used water wisely. Even if I was plagued by such curiosity, these were simpler times when a player had to basically die to feature outside of the sports sections in the press.

Role models are a different thing nowadays, and that is because everything a sports star does is in the public eye, and therefore heavily scrutinised. In the 1980s, a player could have got into a drunken bar fight, said unsavoury things about same sex marriage while speaking at a school, or be accused of misconduct while on tour.

Most of these things would have been swiftly swept under the carpet, and the public would have been none the wiser. Do any of those things today though, and well players will incur the wrath of the media and the fans.

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How dare they behave like this? Who do they think they are? They are meant to set the example for kids! No, they are not. The only people meant to be setting the example for kids growing up are their family. That responsibility cannot be outsourced any further than that.

As for the other points, sports stars are no different to you and I. They have good days and bad days. They want to be loved rather than hated, and they are also likely to misbehave when certain elements are involved.

This was true for Neil Burger and his team mates back then too, and it will be for every player in future. So should sports stars still be role models? Absolutely. But within reason.

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Firstly, adults looking for role models in sport is a bit like adults waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. You need to move on from such things. When it comes to the kids though, sports stars are a vital link between them and a sport. They give kids belief that they can follow their dreams and achieve greatness in a sport. They give them examples of how hard work leads to success, and above all that, they also give them something to cheer for as we instinctively all love winners in life.

That is where their roles as ‘role models’ should end. Just doing those things is hard enough, and requires everything of themselves to maintain this high level of profile. These guys don’t then need the added pressure of other elements in private life to be judged on too.

“But they must reflect the values of the sponsors and teams they represent, and all those aligned to them.” Sure, I understand that. Sports stars, just like professionals in any other industry, have to conduct themselves in a certain manner. But the media and us fans should resist the temptation to dig further than we have to with these individuals and just leave them to try be the best sports stars that they can be.

A change of mindset could lead to a positive change in both the lives of fans and players.

  • Ben is a freelance sports writer, MC and offers sports related content campaigns for brands. He is also the sports guy on Gareth Cliff’s morning show on where he gets the freedom to air his sporting views and ‘insights’.
  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.