For sports journalists, it's the gift that just keeps on giving. Somewhere in the world, as I type these words or as you read them, there is a sports person doing something incredibly stupid. It can range from a blond cricketer sending text messages he shouldn't be, or a footy player using something as a toilet that was never intended for that purpose.
Anyone can pick up the paper or turn on the news any night you please and be confronted with the latest in a long line of indiscretions. Some of them may seem amusing, but others are far more serious—for every pedalo being paddled around in circles there is a sport whose reputation is in tatters because of rampant cheating and drug abuse.
I'm just an athlete
As inevitable as the offences themselves is the fact that, at some point in proceedings, someone—often the sports person themselves—will use the defence they are just athletes. Therefore, they shouldn't be held to some higher standard than anyone else, and that they shouldn't be held up as role models.
It's a fair point, just because you can hit a cricket ball into orbit, or run an inflated pigskin through a wall of massive opponents, it doesn't necessarily follow that you are particularly virtuous or wise. It doesn't stop you from making stupid decisions, or make you immune to temptation—and often professional athletes are exposed to a huge range of temptation.
But, while I think it is unfair to expect professional athletes to be saints and lead lives of unimpeachable integrity, I do feel that there are certain levels of behaviour we do have a right to expect from them.
With great opportunity comes great responsibility
Where the argument that a professional athlete is merely paid to succeed in their chosen sport falls down is that on-field performance is only part of their role. It is not just the result on any given day that they are measured by, it is their contribution to the sport itself that matters.
The reason why a Kevin Pietersen is paid big money to come and play in the Big Bash League, or a David Beckham is lured to Los Angeles to play soccer is not just about putting ticks in the win column. It is about the bums they put on seats, how they raise the profile of their club and their chosen sport. They become ambassadors for the game, and as such they come under scrutiny. Because of this, they have a responsibility to do their best to give back to the sport that gives them so much.
The reality is, if you don't want the scrutiny that comes with being part of professional sports at the highest level, then you can't expect the money that comes with such popularity. If you really do want to play quietly and anonymously, then there are plenty of local clubs that would love to have you.
As an example, Brendan Fevola is, by all accounts, thriving playing local football. He still receives plenty of attention on a local level (and still crops up from time to time on reality television), but is no longer under a relentless media spotlight. I doubt he is earning half as much money, but that lessening of pressure has allowed him to simply play sport, without all the rest of the baggage.
Setting an example
As well as inspiring children to take up a particular sport, athletes provide an example of how you are meant to go about it. Legspin enjoyed a renaissance thanks to Shane Warne, and a whole generation of soccer players wanted to bend it like Beckham. More than that, they take note of their idols' actions and behaviour, and it filters down into the lower levels of sport. It doesn't stop at technique, attitudes are just as contagious—from "walking" to the way people celebrate a wicket.
It isn't just the way that they act on the sporting field that fans emulate. The way athletes carry themselves in their interactions with the media and fans matters, too. That's why when Christ Gayle tried to chat up the female journalist who was interviewing him it wasn't a bit of harmless fun.
It was sending a message to all the kids who want to grow up to be Gayle that it is okay to make someone uncomfortable in their workplace, that women aren't to be taken as seriously as men even when they are doing the same job and doing it well.
A social contract
Professional athletes occupy a privileged position in our society, and—even if for a narrow window of time—enjoy fame and fortune and travel beyond the dreams of most of us. In return, they should be willing to try and use the influence they have for the good of their chosen sport, and to give young people a positive example to follow. Like all of us, they will make mistakes—that is being human. It is how they deal with them that matters.
So, we need to acknowledge the role we play in the downfall of so many athletes. We put them up on a pedestal and crucify them when they fall short. We tell young men and women that if you are good enough at a sport you don't need to worry about developing other life skills, and then wonder why they are ill equipped to deal with adversity or temptation. It isn't just a one way relationship—we need to live up to our responsibilities to them, too.
That way, everybody wins.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html