OPINION: When we take our cues from athletes we undermine the years of hard work put in by medical and public health professionals
Professional athletes continue to remind us that they are not the standard bearers of morality or public health aficionados, so why are we still so easily duped by them? It begs the question, are athletes role models – people others should look to as good examples or worthy of imitation – and should we be taking serious medical advice from them?
The answer (drum roll please): no and no.
Athletes are humans who make mistakes
In 1993, Charles Barkley created a stir when he famously intimated that athletes should not be looked upon as role models in an iconic Nike ad campaign. “Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” the former NBA All Star said. At the time, his comments were met with mixed reactions, but this idea put forth by the now brash TNT analyst and former basketball player, now seems more prophetic than ever.
In the past two weeks, we have seen a number of NFL stars become entangled in controversies involving poor judgement and substance abuse. Former Las Vegas Raider wide receiver Henry Ruggs III was involved in a car crash that left a 23-year-old woman and her dog dead. Prosecutors say the former University of Alabama standout was driving 156 mph, with a loaded handgun in the back seat, and had a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit.
Former Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs III walks on the field during warmups before last month’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Allegiant Stadium in Vegas. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a now un-closeted anti-vaxxer and one of the most recognizable athletes in the country, was found to have deliberately lied to reporters about his vaccination status, knowingly violating team health and safety protocols by not wearing a mask around reporters (and likely teammates and staff), choosing to put them in harm’s way to avoid the shame of being labeled as unvaccinated.
When asked why he did not get vaccinated, Rodgers said he was allergic to ingredients in the vaccine, but he did not stop there. The quarterback was so concerned about the believability of his story that he went on to question the efficacy of the highly effective vaccines, spew misinformation, target “woke” cancel culture, and praise fellow anti-vaxxer and podcast host Joe Rogan, who has promoted the scientifically unproven use of ivermectin, a form of horse tranquilizer. Unlike Rodgers, Rogan has been honest about his position from the outset.
Last month, San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane was suspended 21 games by the NHL for providing a fake COVID-19 vaccination card, joining Kyrie Irving in the fraternity of star athletes willing to forgo millions of dollars to uphold their belief.
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving handles the ball during an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas, in this Thursday, May 6, 2021, file photo. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
The mere fact that a cowardly and narcissistic thrower of a football believes that he is smarter than every scientist and health professional around the world is problematic and reflective of a much larger issue in society. Fans and the media are complicit in fostering a system that encourages misbehavior and an inflated sense of self in athletes.
We give these young celebrities millions of dollars and publicity, then shove a microphone in their face and ask them to comment on just about everything. These young men and women are woefully unqualified to provide general advice, let alone public health guidance. By putting them on a godly pedestal, we misconstrue their athletic prowess for social, political and academic acuity.
If our favorite athletes uphold beliefs similar to ours, we laud them as heroes. If they hold beliefs in disagreement with our own, we villainize them and call them selfish. No matter the side, we are hardly ever surprised by an athlete’s behavior.
One common theme stands out: the most successful athletes march to the beat of their own drum, in part because we encourage them to do so by idolizing them. By removing the human element from our evaluation of athletes and treating them as some sort of caricature of our expectations, we open the door for disappointment and the spread of misinformation.
Despite being regular humans like you or I, we as fans demand too much of our athletes. We expect them to be flawless – showing grace whether they win or lose and to eloquently opine on social issues way outside the bounds of sports and entertainment before and after games. When they disappoint us, we overly criticize or overlook their mistakes depending on how closely their transgressions violate our personal moral code.
The danger of exalting celebrities
It’s easy to confuse athletes for role models because the media has turned sports into male-dominated reality TV. The athletes are the protagonists and lily White owners are the antagonists. TV and social media transform the lead-up to games into a soap opera that makes these figures highly marketable. Media exploits our insatiable appetite for entertainment, spurring us to ask more of our athletes than we should.
In this world where we praise people like Rodgers for their intellectual acumen, based on his ability to dissect a defense and read questions on Jeopardy, we have to reevaluate why we deem people like him as a better source of truth than more knowledgeable individuals like doctors and scientists. It’s a reasonable expectation for those who reach the acme of the sports world to be truthful and honorable citizens, but we have to recognize that they will get it wrong more often than not, especially as we peel back more layers and uncover their true self.
When we put athletes on a pedestal and inflate their importance, we ignore evidence of their incompatibility with our moral compass. We find reasons to justify their poor decision making, lack of expertise, and outright hypocrisy; and minimize the years of hard work put in by true subject matter experts.
Evander Kane #9 of the San Jose Sharks warms up during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on March 27, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
By equating athletic accomplishments with infallibility and transcendent heroism, we plant in the mind of successful athletes the idea that they are somehow wiser than experts, beyond reproach, and above the rules that all people must abide by.
Exalting athletes as heroes and role models dehumanizes them and makes it more likely that we will ignore anything that casts a negative light on them. In this world where we ask athletes to also be activist sports role models, we sometimes forget that they are humans who need to be reminded of the extent of their exposure and influence.
Whether a professional athlete wants to be a role model or not is irrelevant. Society is only asking these influencers to meet the low bar of being an honest and good human.
While athletes should be applauded for their accomplishments and work ethic, they should not serve as our moral compass. In a world where people are bombarded with content, and therefore easily swayed by the court of public opinion, we have a responsibility to demand that our athletes refrain from misguiding people and leave the fine details, especially in health matters, to those who know better.
The value of expert advice
In constructing our own narrative of sport, we sometimes forget that athletes are fallible creatures, who have put in a lifetime of work, and often their physical and mental health, on the line for our amusement. To ask for a greater level of righteousness and wisdom than we would demand from one another is unfair and begs for disappointment.
Kyrie Irving, the point guard for the Brooklyn nets. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
We must reconsider the value that we place on the opinion of athletes when it comes to health matters, and accept that when it comes to our health, all opinions are not equal.
You wouldn’t let a plumber perform open heart surgery because blood flows through veins and arteries like water through pipes. Yes, some athletes may have a basic understanding of science, or have friends in the field who they can bounce ideas off of, but their level of expertise is a far cry from the information needed to provide medical guidance.
Science is far from intuitive. Its practical application goes beyond having a basic understanding of the body, that’s why it requires years of continuous learning, understanding, and practice. When we take our cues from athletes we undermine the years of hard work put in by medical and public health professionals.
Athletes play an important role in society. We want our young people to practice like Rodgers, speak out against social injustices like Irving, and be as positive as Kane, but by no means should we take our health advice from them, or any athlete.
Dr. Shamard Charles is an assistant professor of public health and health promotion at St. Francis College and sits on the anti-bias review board of Dot Dash/VeryWell Health. He is also host of the health podcast, Heart Over Hype. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.
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