Two of the Premier League’s stand out players this season, Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy and Deli Alli of Tottenham Hotspur, have made headlines in the last few days for all the wrong reasons, with the former receiving a further one game ban for verbally abusing a referee who sent him off, and the later facing a potential three-match ban for being caught on camera appearing to punch an opponent in the stomach.
Both incidents come as further examples of sporting icons failing in their duty as role models, but surely these continued misdemeanours raise a bigger question: why do we continue to put our sports stars in that social position in the first place?
Over the last few months, as a stand out young player, Deli Alli has been thrust not only into the limelight, but into the role of childhood hero, someone to be idolized and imitated. We've been here before. In one of dozens of Wayne Rooney biographies, the biographer comments on how he brought his young son to see Rooney in action at Old Trafford, only for Rooney to lash out at an opposition player, leaving the son downhearted and confused, asking why his hero ‘hit that other man?’ The biographer himself will not have been surprised – it wasn’t out of character for the hot-headed young footballer he was writing about – but his son was distraught, because this wasn’t the poster boy idol he’d come to adore.
It is all part of how we watch sport, then build a fairy-tale around it, put sport stars on a pedestal and then complain when they fall.
Childhood naivety perhaps. Except it happens to all of us when we give too much esteem to our sports figures. We take their hunger, their passion to win and the obvious skill they display when doing so, and add moral and human qualities to them, creating figures that are not just superior athletes but superior people. When a young English footballer emerges, one of the first pieces of over-the-top hype to come their way is the label ‘future England captain,’ because it is not enough that they are good footballers, they have to be leaders too. When they reach the top of the sporting world, we go even further. We wanted Lance Armstrong to be an against all odds hero, yet he turned out to be a cheat, a fraud; and it was not enough for Tiger Woods or Ryan Giggs to be incredible sporting talents, we were shocked when they didn’t carry the highest moral standards too. It is all part of how we watch sport, then build a fairy-tale around it, put sport stars on a pedestal and then complain when they fall.
At the end of last year, Tyson Fury’s inclusion on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist received criticism due to the boxer’s controversial comments on women and gay people. 80,000 people signed a petition to have him removed from the list after Fury said: "I'm not sexist. I believe a woman's best place is in the kitchen and on her back. That's my personal belief. Making me a good cup of tea, that's what I believe."
That Fury said these things is a bad reflection on his character, but that he was put in a position where his opinion on such matters were inquired about, then heavily publicised and widely circulated, says as much about our society and the media as it does about him. Yes, Fury could and should have chosen his words better, and yes his views are incorrect and outdated, but in reality he shouldn't be asked to comment on such issues in the first place, and once he has, his views deserve no more attention than those of the next person.
When sports stars transcend the sporting world and begin to seep into modern culture, it is usually because they have reached the highest level of their trade, but this doesn't mean that we should necessarily grant them power beyond it. There are certain exceptions, but in general, to expect these people to show perfect manners, to be characters that we can raise our children on, purely because of their athletic prowess, is unwise of us, and unfair on them. Judging them and lauding them on their sporting prowess is all they have asked for, all they deserve, and all that it is wise for us to do.