Sandra Lynch, Daryl Adair and Paul Jonson


This chapter takes an interdisciplinary approach combining expertise in sports management and in philosophy to examine the premises under- pinning the contested claim that professional athletes have a special obligation to be role models both within and beyond the sporting arena. Arguments for and against the claim are briefly addressed, as a prelude to identifying and elucidating a set of factors relevant to a consideration of this alleged special obligation. The chapter considers understandings of sport, play and athleticism from an ethical perspective and examines their relationship to professionalism to determine the extent to which ethical imperatives can logically be upheld or undermined within the pro- fessional context. The chapter concludes that professional athletes can- not be expected to be able to respond to the demand that they act as role models within and beyond the sporting arena unless the tensions implicit within that demand are articulated. The chapter calls for recognition of the complexity of ethical decision-making in the context of professional sport and recommends that the training of professional athletes should prepare them to deal with this complexity. Recognition of the complexity of decision-making with the professional sporting context suggests the need for further research into optimal training strategies for young professional athletes and into the genesis and reasonableness of the demand that such athletes act as role models both within and beyond the sporting arena.

Keywords: Role model; professional; athlete; sport; play; public expectations


It is widely claimed or assumed that professional athletes are (or should be) role models for sports fans (particularly young people who look up to them). These expectations involve questions of athlete responsibility that are underpinned by ethical principles and associated with assumptions about conduct of public sporting figures. These are complex issues, partly because the concepts of athleticism, sport and play are interrelated within a network of meanings; in some respects they share meanings and in other respects their meanings differ. As we shall argue, variance in their meanings draws attention to different and somewhat contradictory values that com- plicate ethical reasoning in the context of sport, and create confusion or ambivalence in relation to what can be expected of professional athletes, both 'on and off the field'. Player codes of conduct attempt to ensure that professional athletes do not behave in ways that bring the game they play into disrepute, but the language used in these codes is typically very general and consequently the clauses of these codes are open to interpretation.

This chapter explores a set of factors relevant to a consideration of the intuition or demand that professional athletes have a duty to be role mod- els both 'on and off the field'. It begins by exploring responses to the expec- tations associated with this demand and then investigates tensions implicit in requirements that professional athletes accept the designation of role model. The second section of the chapter considers understandings of sport from an ethical perspective and its relationship to professionalism. Its aim is to examine the extent to which the ethical imperatives associated with sport can be upheld or undermined within the context of professional sport. Finally, the third section explores a complex range of issues to be taken into account in any attempt to justify the idea that professional athletes should accept the designation of role model.

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