B ritish athletes decorate the back pages on a daily basis and sometimes even the front – Wayne Rooney’s exploits have often been splashed across the leading page. Thus, a responsibility exists to fulfil the “role model” status surely exists. Here, Ben Hart shines a light on this particular debate through the medium of Eden Hazard, Ben Stokes and Wayne Rooney.
With regards to gamesmanship in football, the phenomenon of diving in the Premier League sparks outrage, with twenty-two yellow cards brandished for diving last season, an explicit reason for the introduction of a retrospective two-match ban for any player guilty of simulation. This area of the game, one which the Football Association are keen to clamp out, is a prime example of an area in which professional footballers must set an example to the next generation. If the professional game permits deception then the grassroots level will inevitably follow: youngsters imitate their idols. A promising light in this dark area of the modern game is the arguably now reformed reputation of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, who once had a reputation for crashing to the floor at the faintest hint of a touch. Remarkably, the Belgian was not awarded a yellow card for such a crime in the 2016/17 season.
“HAZARD SHOULD BE HELD UP AS A PRIME EXAMPLE ON HOW TO CONDUCT YOURSELF”
Thus, the example Hazard has illustrated is solely positive and one that has escaped the discourse surrounding role models in sport. The Chelsea starlet let his natural ability do the talking last term, with a record best sixteen goals in the Premier League; an inspired recovery after his dismal performance in the 2015/16 season. Hazard’s rediscovery of form sends a message to all youth footballers: indifferent and frustrating form will come, but as the old cliche follows, class is certainly permanent and the Belgian’s disciplined attitude is rightly lauded by pundits and players alike. If Hazard’s refusal to trick the referee is deemed an insignificant fact, one only has to look at his disciplinary record last season, picking up just three yellow cards, as another example he has set.
Professionalism is a trait that Hazard clearly possesses and careers both in and out of sport require dedication to be successful. Yet the activities of many of Britain’s leading sports folk are scrutinised to a much larger extent than, for example, those of a local GP. One may go as far to say that it would be more comical than shocking to find your doctor in Timepiece on a Wednesday night and thus, should one rule not apply to all? For if you were to see England international Harry Kane cutting shapes as sharp as his finishing, you can be sure his exploits would make their way into some tabloid papers.
England Test Cricket vice-captain Ben Stokes will certainly argue for reduced media coverage. A victory down under – any victory would have to see Stoke perform at his best during the Ashes – and the actions of Stokes would be quickly forgotten: one day you are a villain, the next a hero, such is the bipolar nature of the media. To confirm this, one only has to remind themselves of when Rooney was knocked out in his own kitchen by former teammate Phil Bardsley, only for Rooney to score on the following day for the Red Devils against Tottenham in 2015 – lambasted as irresponsible, he was praised as a footballing genius the following week.
While both of these two household names pack a fair amount of punch in their aggressive on-the-field displays, is it fair to ask them to keep their post-match antics in check? Rooney, 31, and Stokes, 26, can be forgiven for wanting to celebrate their youth in the way that their friends may do so: involving yourself in brawls is clearly wrong, yet Stokes was provoked during an evening where he simply wanted to unwind. Respect should be given to the lifestyle choices of these sportsmen as without their contributions English sport would be a lot poorer.
On this basis, it can be argued that the media place far too much pressure on these high-profile figures, so much so that any opportunity to exercise their freedom leads to behaviour which would simply not occur were they allowed to live a normal life outside of their sport. Perhaps the persistent focus on the private life of sportspeople will deter the next generation of athletes, as they may prefer to celebrate their youth as they see fit and not exist within the constrained and suffocating bubble of media attention. A youth away from the limelight is arguably far more attractive than repeated speculation created by tabloids and the public, the ongoing pressure of being a role model central to this.