Moral Burden

Given their high profile in wider society, sportspeople have a moral burden to be good role models. Do you agree with this statement?




Every person has another person or people they look up to and they live to emulate them. These people who are looked up to are known as role models. They are good examples and that is why others would wish to live the life they live. According to Random House Dictionary, a role model is one whose character, success, or example is or can be copied or practiced by others (Smoll 2015, n.p). A role model is one who is of good character and one who can be admired. Role models hail from all disciplines in life from piloting, teaching, medicine, sports, and many other fields. In most cases the younger people are the ones who have role models from fields in which they would wish to venture into in the future (Smoll 2015). The major concern in this article is whether sports people have the moral burden to be good role models. Sports people become famous due to their individual achievement and given their high profile in wider society, they are burdened morally to be good role models. According to Smoll, athletes have the moral burden to be role models whether or not they decide to take the responsibility (2015, n.p). Some sports people however, are bad role models but either way they are obliged to bear the moral burden. Sports men and women have the chance to use their fame power to change the coming generation. One such athlete who influenced the youngsters positively in relation to understanding useful masculine behavior is the former boxing star Lennox Lewis who publicly announced that real men never hit women (Smoll 2015, n.p).

Do Sports People have a moral burden to be good role models?

Sports people display their role model roles in various ways. At community level, professional athletes perform their duty of being good role models by encouraging youngsters to take part in organized events and by supporting such activities (Nearmy 2015, n.p). Sportsmen and women are indeed burdened to be role models for others. According to Nearmy, professional athletes are viewed as role models by the society despite the fact that they think otherwise (2015, n.p). Athletes are also role models while off the pitch, that is in other areas. Due to their publicity or fame, sports men and women are assumed to be or must become role models in the society (Nearmy 2015). From the above illustration, it is then agreeable that sports people have a moral burden to be good role models. However, according to one global survey “… only 10% of the elite athletes have been inspired by other elite athletes in order to start with their current sport. Mostly they were encouraged by their parents (59%) and friends (28%) to practice their current sport” (Nearmy 2015, n.p). Despite the above statistics, sports men and women are still seen as role models in many other various ways.

There are various theories that can be used to explain further the moral burden that sports people have to be good role models. One such theory is that which involves the various classes of stars. According to Whannel, there are four kinds of stars namely Traditional/ located stars, Transitional/mobile stars, Incorporated/embourgeoised stars, and Superstars/dislocated stars (2000). Each category may or may not be burdened with the moral issue. A further look and description of each category is discussed in the text below. This discussion opens the mind of the reader to agreeing that sportsmen and women are seen as good role models by the society. Other theories and facts supporting this statement are also discussed.

The four key types of football stars

The first type is the traditional or located stars. These are the players who even after becoming stars they still remain attached in the working class communities from where they originated (Whannel 2000, 50). Such stars have to be good role models as they are constantly attached to their community. Due to them working in the same community from which they came, the society expects them to be good examples to the youngsters. The national representatives in amateur sports, footballers playing in lower leagues; Stanley Matthews, Matt Le Tissier are all examples of traditional stars (Whannel 2000, 50). The other group of stars belongs to the transitional or mobile class. As the name suggests these are footballers who have possessed wider social mobility but they still “retained a cultural working classness” (Whannel 2000). They are termed as mobile as they have moved out of the community and gained more exposure as compared to the traditional stars. Despite their exposure, transitional stars still retain their cultural classness thus carrying the moral burden of being good role models. According to Whannel, Bobby Charlton, Ricky Hatton, Ronnie O’ Sullivan are all examples of mobile stars (2000). The maximum wage rule was abolished in 1961 and this allowed footballers to attain higher degree of social mobility thus becoming transitional stars (Whannel 2002, 50).

New opportunities came with the abolition of the maximum wage rule in 1961 that led to a new group of stars, incorporated/embourgeoised. According to Critcher (1979) social mobility made some stars ‘self-conscious participants in the process of their own embourgeoisement’ (Whannel 2000, 50). Alan Ball, Bobby Moore, Kevin Keegan, and Trevor Francis were Critcher’s examples of incorporated football stars (Whannel 2000, 50). The transformation that has been witnessed in the previous three categories of football stars affected the fourth class of stars. According to Whannel, Superstars/dislocated stars were talented players who could not keep up with the dislocation that was as a result of the previous transformations (2000, 50). Superstars hoped to remain in the normal working class but they were way much too talented to retain such status (Whannel 2000). When faced with such a challenge one is neither able to cope with the fame nor remain in middle classness. The dislocated stars rejected social mobility and were also unable to cope with their fame (Whannel 2000). Some of the players who fell in this class included George Best, Mike Tyson, Rodney Marsh, Diego Maradona among others (Whannel 2000, 51).

The Media and moral burden on sports people

Description of the four different types of football stars opens a wider discussion. As described by Critcher, these four types are based on a model of transition (Whannel, 2002, 51). Each of the stars in the various classes has undergone transition from one level to the other with others remaining at the same level. The model according to Critcher leads a person’s attention to the relation that exists between the sports person social position, the social changes that could bring change at the workplace, the new economic power that has been acquired by the media industry and the power of representation (Whannel 2000, 51). The media play a major role in the moral burden that sportsmen and women have to be good role models in the society (Rowe 2013).

The media sports industry growth marks a change in the way athletes are viewed by the society. Once the media covers a sports personality in details, the person is hailed by the community and this is where the moral burden sets in. The sports person must therefore, commit themselves to becoming good role models. The media shapes perception of the sports persons in the society. The media sports industry is said to have grown in power and with this came the assumption of representation of sports to higher cultural centrality starting from 1970s (Whannel 2000). It is during this period that the media representation of stars moved a notch higher in shaping perceptions. Sports people may not present good character but the media’s presentation of these people changes how they are perceived in the society. According to Critcher, there is a problem when it comes to comparing the image and reality of the represented star and the real person (Whannel 2000). Such comparison becomes an issue because what is being presented in the media is not the same that as can be seen in the real person. The media ends up constructing their own sports persons who end up carrying the moral burden of becoming good role models against their will. The society gets various meanings of the sports person as represented by the media and not based on the person’s real character (Whannel 2000). The above illustration therefore, agrees with the statement that ‘due to their profile in the wider society, sports people have a moral burden to be good role models.

Role Models outside the Field

 Nearmy argues that high profile athletes can be role models outside of sports (2015). Some famous sportsmen and women must be role models whether or not they like, a moral burden that is bestowed on them by the society (Nearmy 2015). In many communities once a person becomes an athlete they automatically become role models and are emulated by many in the same society. The reason as to why sports people carry the moral burden to be good role models is because some of them come from communities whereby an athlete or a footballer is a respectable figure. Such people are therefore expected to carry themselves with great character to be good role models. As stated previously, sports people have the moral burden to be good role models outside of sports in various community organizations. Sports persons act as politicians at one point (Nearmy 2015). One such sports person who has become a role model outside the sports world is Bachar Houli who is an AFL footballer of Muslim faith (Nearmy 2015). Once a person decides to venture into the field of sports, they should take with them the responsibility of being role models in all aspects of their lives. As for Bachar, he engaged with the wider Islamic community and inspired young Muslims who were willing to venture into sports (Nearmy 2015). Houli’s club commended his good work and has continuously supported him in his quest to be a good role model (Nearmy 2015). Being a good role model comes with many advantages and so all sportsmen and women should thrive to be good role models (Davis 2008). Although it is a moral burden, being a good role model earns the sports people respect, good reputation, and favor in various institutions.

Various theories on moral burden

Athletes should be banned from using performance enhancing drugs because they are viewed as role models and youngsters will copy this habit from them. The latter statement is coined from Peterson’s discussion of the Role-model argument (RMA) (2010). Celebrities such as Serena and Venus Williams, Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods among others are role models and should therefore refrain from using drugs. This belief can be verified by the following statement by the US Olympic Committee in February 2009 “Michael Phelps is a role model, and he is well aware of the responsibilities and accountability that come with setting a positive example for others, particularly young people. In this instance [which involved the smoking of marijuana bong at a private party], regrettably, he failed to fulfill those responsibilities” (Peterson 2010, 333, 334). Sports people therefore, carry the moral burden of being good role models. The role-model argument which concerns banning athletes from using drugs further explains why the sports people ought to be good role models. Brian Mikkelsen, the former vice-president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) argues that the reason for banning drug use among athletes is not only for the good of sports person, but also for the youngsters and children who emulate the athletes (Peterson 2010).

Sports men and women have been viewed as good role models since time in memorial (Paige 2005). Some of these athletes say that they do not want to be regarded as role models but the moral burden has been embedded on them by the society that views them as idols. This trend has however, changed whereby one finds that in recent times, the emphasis on the moral burden on sports people is not as much as it used to be back in the days (Paige 2005). For instance in America, only few people look up to the athletes as their role models. Traditional stars are the ones who are highly faced with the moral burden of being good role models as they remain in the society from which they originated.

Every participant in the sports industry including the coaches, managers, and the players are considered as role models. All the stakeholders have people who emulate their character in various stages of life. In various countries, some sports are for specific gender that is a certain sport is dominated by one specific gender. In Norway, handball is a woman’s game and most of the players are good role models to the young boys and girls in the society (Pedersen 2013). According to Addis (1996) some young athletes have emulated the older sports people thus finding themselves in the sports field; the older athletes have to be good role models both in the field and also in their character, morality, and citizenship (Pedersen 2013, 97). Some sportsmen and women have to carry the moral burden of being good role models to help maintain a certain sport by mentoring young aspiring players, as in the latter illustration. Referees who are also a part of the sports team also have the moral burden bestowed on them by the sports fraternity and the society as whole to be good role models (Pederson 2013). There are young boys and girls out there who would wish to be referees and they need to see referees of good moral character in the field. If there were no role models in the sports industry, most activities would have grown into extinction. For the same reason the sportsmen and women have to bear the moral burden of being good role models in their specific field events (Hutchins, Rowe 2013).

In many cases people from all career fields have to be pushed and some coarseness has to be applied for things to work as desired. A given company will have to add some tight rules in the organization’s policies for them to achieve their goals. There has been no record of success without hard work. The same case applies to the sports department or industry. Players and all other stakeholders have to be put under some kind of pressure for them to perform and maintain the given sport. In the case of sports, it is the society that can push the sportsmen and women towards the right direction and it does so by ensuring that the athletes are burdened morally to be good role models (Biressi, Anita, Nunn, Heather 2007).

The adults in the society would not want their children to look up to people who are not morally upright. Sportsmen and women have to be good role models to give back to the community. This case mainly applies to the traditional group of stars who have grown and remained in their communities even after becoming famous. The community supports sportsmen and women and the only way to repay is by being good role models to the young boys and girls. The sports people have the moral burden to pass on the characters that they also learn from those that were before them. It is therefore their duty to be morally upright despite their willingness or unwillingness (Holmes, Redmond 2006). Sports are part of social activities where all sought of people including fans meet. Some activities involve the whole world where by various individuals are selected to represent their countries. These nations expect their sportsmen and women to represent the country in the best way possible. The sports people are expected to bring back home medals. However, the moral behavior of such players also matter a lot and they are therefore expected to carry themselves with a high degree of dignity. The athletes are therefore burdened to be of good morals and refrain from issues such as drug use and abusive language. In all cases, sportsmen and women have to be good role models whether or not they like. It is a moral burden that the athletes and footballers have to bear throughout their career.     

Some scholars and authors are not for the opinion that sports people have the moral burden to be good role models. Some argue that if people in other fields do not bear the moral burden why then should athletes bear the same (Landry F, Landry M, Yerles M, and International Olympic Committee 1991). This argument could be true in the sense that if actors and actresses are not viewed as moral role models even the athletes should be opted out. Some of the athletes live lives that are full of drama from drug use, financial breakdowns, divorce cases and should therefore not be looked upon by the young children.


At one point or another, everyone has got that one person or persons they would wish to live like in their later lives. As mentioned previously, such persons are known as role models. Some of the people that are highly placed in social ladders by the society are the sportsmen and women.  From the article compiled above, theories discussed and views of different authors it is agreeable that sports people have the moral burden of being good role models. There are so many young people looking forward to building their careers around sports and so current sportsmen and women have to be good examples by guiding them towards the right direction. Sports people represent various countries around the world and no nation would want to pride in an athlete who is not morally upright. The athletes are regarded as morally upright people who are emulated by youngsters and children despite them not willing to be viewed as role models. The referees, coaches and all other stakeholders are also burdened with being morally upright. In conclusion it can be agreed that athletes and footballers have no choice but to be good role models a characteristic that comes with being a star in the sports industry. 





Biressi, A & Nunn, H (2007). The tabloid culture reader. Maidenhead, McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.

Davies, N. (2008) Flat Earth News. London: Chatto and Windus                                                                                                     

Holmes S & Redmond S (2006). Framing Celebrity, Abingdon: Routledge

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Landry F, Landry M, Yerles M, and International Olympic Committee. 1991. Mass media and sports. Quebec City, Canada.

Nearmy T (2015). “Athletes of influence? The role model refrain in sport.” The Conversation. [Online]. Available at:http://theconversation.com/athletes-of-influence-the-role-model-refrain-in-sport-52569

Paige, S (2005). "Athletes Are Role Models Whether They Like It or Not." Are Athletes Good Role Models?, edited by Geoff Griffin, Greenhaven Press, 2005. At Issue. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ3010350203/OVIC?u=mlin_m_clarke&xid=f779ddd1. Accessed 6 Jan. 2017. Originally published as "Sports Gladiators, Bread and Circuses," Insight on the News, vol. 14, 3 Aug. 1998, p. 8.

Pedersen P (2013). Routledge Handbook of Sport Communication. Abingdon: Routledge.

Petersen P (2010). 'Good Athlete - Bad Athlete? on the 'Role-Model Argument' for Banning Performance-Enhancing Drugs', Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 332- 340

Rowe D (2013). Global Media Sport Flows, Forms and Futures. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Smoll F (2015). “Are Athletes Good Role Models? Athletes as role models.” Psychology Today [Online]. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/coaching-and-parenting-young-athletes/201504/are-athletes-good-role-models

Whannel G (2000). ‘Heroes and Stars’ in Media Sport Stars: Masculinities and Moralities. 





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