Role models: Star athletes' controversial actions a concern for parents

Tamara Browning

Kerby Ingram has been a fan of swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps since she first met him in 2005.

A competitive swimmer, Kerby, 12, often wears a swimming cap with Phelps’ name emblazoned on it. Not only that, says her father Kurt Ingram, “she’s well read on Michael Phelps,” whose eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics broke records and made him internationally famous.

Kerby is also aware of Phelps’ DUI arrest after competing in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. She knows about the recent photo published in a British tabloid showing him smoking from a marijuana pipe.

“I was very surprised. Then I realized he’s a person and we all make mistakes and it’ll pass,” says Kerby, herself an accomplished swimmer who’s won several honors.

Phelps’ drug indiscretion is hardly the only questionable act committed by a top athlete.

Baseball star Alex Rodriguez recently admitted he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2001 to 2003. Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard posed nude for Playboy.

Champion athletes such as Phelps, Rodriguez and Beard have many young fans who aspire to be just like them.

But when idols show a more human, failing side, how do adoring young fans respond? And how can parents help guide them?

Youths such as Kerby Ingram have come to realistic conclusions about their role models through talks with their parents. Talking things out is a good step, says psychologist Leslie “Jack” Fyans Jr.

“In these kinds of situations, the parents have to, to a certain extent, open up reality to the student,” Fyans says.

“They say that humans aren’t just one-dimensional, that a role model may be exceptionally good at a particular sport, whatever that may be, but they’re also human and they’re prone to difficulties. We’re prone to whatever. Whether it’s a DUI thing or assault, we’re prone to errors. That’s what the human dilemma is.”

A role model in the making

Research shows that children from age 4 identify with someone outside themselves. When they watch cartoons or TV shows, they may want to be celebrities, like a member of the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus, Fyans says.

“That’s simply an iconic identification. That’s sort of an image,” Fyans says.

About the time a child is 7 or 8, he or she may begin identifying with the image of a person, and with that person’s behaviors, values and choices.

When a role model makes a bad choice, how a child responds depends on whether he or she sees the role model as imperfect, Fyans says.

“Let’s say a really good basketball player gets charged with dope or gets charged with some assault or whatever. (Children) may actually see it as appropriate for them to do that (same behavior) because, quite frankly, their role model did it,” Fyans says.

Children may experience conflict if an authority figure, such as a parent or pastor, points out how the celebrity’s behavior was wrong, or if the child’s value system conflicts with what the role model did.

“Then you’re going to end up with some real distorted values because the child, whoever that child may be, will sit there and say, ‘Wait a minute here. I’ve been raised not to steal from people. I’ve been raised not to play with guns. I’ve been raised not to treat people badly, and this guy’s treating people badly.’”

In some cases, a child may give up the sport his or her role model plays.

“You can see the child’s performance themselves at the sport where they used to be really good at because they’re modeling the role model, drop off, and/or they just quit the sport and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Fyans says.

A child needs to understand that he shouldn’t condemn a sport for the errors that human beings make. A child eventually will make his or her own mistakes, but mistakes don’t define a person, Fyans says.

“What defines you is how good you are at something, not the mistakes you have in it,” Fyans says.

A word to parents

Because people are more than their performances, parents should teach their children core values, says Ben Manley, a licensed professional counselor with Lifeline Counseling, LLC.

“We have feelings. We have emotions. We have behaviors. We have goals. We have expectations in our own lives. We’ve kind of left that up to the schools and to other people to teach kids our core values now,” Manley says.

“Because of that, they’ve become very performance-driven themselves. For some children, it’s not so much about how you play the game, it’s if you win or not.”

If children have a strong base in their own core values, then it makes it easier for them to understand why other people make mistakes.

“When they’re grounded in themselves, they can look at other people and they can say, ‘Wow. If they had had a little more honesty or a little more integrity, if they had had a little more trustworthiness, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten into this,’ ” Manley says.

Michael Phelps is an excellent example of an athlete who has tremendous potential to show his “completeness” to everyone, Manley says.

“He eats right. He exercises right. He’s a faith-filled person. He has strong family values and commitments, but those things are never brought out,” Manley says.

“I think Michael Phelps did the right thing. He’s admitted, ‘Hey, I was guilty. I did it.’ He didn’t try to sidestep the issue at all, which is another modeling experience for kids. You make a mistake, you ‘fess up to it and you go on with your life,” Manley says.

A word from parents and kids

Michelle Snelson, assistant aquatic director at the YMCA, said mistakes such as the ones Phelps made may serve as a lesson for kids.

Snelson’s children Trent, 15, and Taylor, 11, are competitive swimmers and they talked about Phelps’ trouble “a little bit,” Snelson says. She also noted that USA Swimming was “very proactive in making sure that the swimmers knew that this is the wrong thing to do, but obviously, he’s a great swimmer so we’re going to support him in that effort.”

Competitive swimmers Julia Dierker, 12, and Arthur Steiner, 18, both say Phelps is still a role model despite his mistake.

However, Dierker qualifies her thoughts.

“I think that’s going to really hurt the way a lot of people look at swimming and him … even though what he did was great, (it’s) like it’s not going to be as great now that he’s made that mistake,” Dierker says.

Steiner agrees that Phelps made some mistakes, “but he still trained really hard and showed what you could do with a lot of dedication,” he says.

Dianne Carney says she stresses to her children, Alexandra, 14, and Annah, 11, that whether it’s in athletics or how they interact with friends, they have to make choices. Annah Carney, who swims competitively, says she learned from Phelps’ mistake.

“You’ve got to be careful. You can’t get too confident. He’s still a role model because he’s a really good swimmer,” Annah says.

Phelps’ greatness in his sport should be applauded, but people should realize it’s just a snapshot, Manley says.

“What we need is to teach our kids not to be a part of that instantaneous gratification,” Manley says. “We need to teach our kids instead of being the instantaneous microwave generation that they need to learn to be a little bit more like the Crock-Pot. They need to take things and process it and cook it slow and say, ‘Now what is this really all about? What was missing in this person’s character that caused them to fall short of true completeness?’ ”

A word to role models

“People that are the iconic images, even the professional ones, need to remember that the eyes of children are watching them,” Fyans says.

“You get all the glory of the performance of eight three-point shots per game … but … if you get in a big tussle at a restaurant or a bar or throw your wife against the wall or something and it gets in the press … those little eyes are going to really be disappointed.”

Being a good example just doesn’t begin and end with celebrities, Fyans says.

“Everybody who thinks that they’re looking at a role model themselves or a role model for themselves may be a role model themselves for somebody earlier. As a freshman watching a senior, a sixth grader could be watching the freshman,” Fyans says.

“Your siblings may be watching you, your peers, so always be aware of the fact there’s a mirror behind you.

“While you’re learning to not be crestfallen or hurt by your role model’s failure, don’t create the same problem for the person behind you. There’ll always be Joey or Betty watching what you’re doing.”

Tamara Browning can be reached at (217) 788-1534