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Why should we expect footballers to set an example to the rest of us? asks Carlton Brick

Glenn Hoddle's role model army?

England's footballers seem of late to have been in the news as much for their exploits off the field as on it. Lurid tales of sex, drink, drugs, gambling and domestic violence have led to demands that players grow up and recognise that their irresponsible behaviour is setting a bad example to the youngsters who idolise them. Under the born-again Glenn Hoddle, it has become clear that England internationals in particular are expected to mend their ways and, with the help of counsellors and a supportive media, become role models for the nation's youth.

Before the Euro '96 tournament, members of the England squad found themselves in hot water over a tequila binge in Hong Kong and some casual vandalism on the flight home. In the run-up to France '98, by contrast, Hoddle was at pains to assure us that his players were getting in touch with their spiritual side through faith-healer Eileen Dewery.

Is all of this fuss about footballers behaving badly justified? Not according to Garry Whannel, co-director of the centre for sports development and research at the Roehampton Institute in London. 'Professional footballers lead fairly cosseted lives, and have not gone through a lot of the processes of maturation that people in other circumstances go through. If you add to that the huge rewards now available to our top players, it would be surprising if incidents like the one in the Hong Kong nightclub with the dentist's chair didn't happen. I don't think that English footballers squirting tequila cocktails down each others' throats when off duty is really an issue that should concern anybody unduly.

'Behaviour is not in any natural sense bad; we produce bad behaviour by a process of labelling. The things about sportsmen's behaviour that are highly publicised are often incredibly trivial. Ian Botham spent months in the press because the police found a small quantity of marijuana in his house. It is only by dragging somebody's name through the papers that it becomes a much more elaborate and highly exposed issue than it perhaps might be.'

Through his extensive research into issues of sport and morality, Whannel has become convinced that the notion of the sporting role model has little to do with the actual behaviour of the sportsman, but reflects a wider concern in society. 'The idea of the role model', he suggests, 'is a political concept at root, and there is a moral agenda lurking not far below the surface. A lot of things in society are supposed to be in crisis: masculinity is in crisis, morality is in crisis, family values are in crisis. Now that is not to say that those things actually are, but they are talked about as though they are. Sport is a great provider of major celebrities on to which these concerns can be condensed'.

'When Bobby Moore died a couple of years ago', Whannel recalls, 'he was eulogised as an exemplar of a set of lost values, rather than just a sporting hero. Moore became the means through which the sixties were mythically reinvented as a time in which family values were in place, when crime was low, when there was a respect for authority, and of course when England won the World Cup. But if you go back and examine the period, a lot of those claims look rather questionable - except of course England winning the World Cup'.

Switch on the news or pick up a paper these days and you are likely to find some player or another fronting a 'socially responsible' campaign about knives or racism or doing your school homework. The New Labour government's Football Task Force says it wants 'to develop the opportunities for players to act as good role models in terms of behaviour and sportsmanship'. Whannel is concerned about the possibly authoritarian consequences of this demand for role models.

Take the FA's random drug-testing initiative, which has led to several young professionals being banned, their careers virtually terminated before they have begun, after testing positive for recreational drugs like cannabis. 'The implications of the drugs cases', Whannel suggests, 'raise huge questions about the responsibility of employers. In what circumstances are we asking employers, such as football clubs or the FA, to be the moral guardians of the private lives of their employees?

'The worrying thing is that sport is now at the cutting edge of a new extension of a moral guardianship over an individual's private life. There is a very clear distinction to be made between the use of performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drugs. But that distinction is being blurred, more so in football at the moment than any other sport. It is quite strange that they seem to catch far more people using recreational drugs than performance-enhancing ones.'

It is not just the lifestyle of the sports star which suffers in this process. There are also worrying implications for the rest of us. As Whannel points out, the assumption of the need for role models within society rests upon a very bleak view of the way people and their children understand the world they live in. 'The idea that young people need sports stars to set them a good example posits a very one-sided view of children', says Whannel, 'where they simply pick a particular player they admire and model themselves according to that star's behaviour. It seems to me that children are far more subtle and sophisticated. They are quite able to distinguish for instance between Gascoigne the football genius, Gascoigne the clown, and Gascoigne the wife beater. The concept of the role model, I think, is completely inadequate when accounting for how people really live their lives and make decisions about different kinds of behaviour'.

A society that demands role models is one that believes people are inadequate, unable to cope if left to their own devices. Deeply patronising and insulting, the demand for role models, sporting or otherwise, reduces everybody to the level of the ill-behaved child. It is about time some people realised that football is only a game; it is not a way of life.*

Setting national standards: Glenn Hoddle's England squad

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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