One rule for footballers and one for everyone else?

Top footballers are an enviable bunch. They’re paid unfeasible sums of money, lusted after by the world’s most beautiful women and get to play that game that we all love as a full-time job. But like all good things in life, there’s a catch. In return for such a privileged lifestyle, many believe that a certain sense of responsibility is inherently attached to the role of professional footballer. Many believe that it is mandatory that footballers display a sense of decorum in return for their esteemed social status.

In spite of this, incidents of footballers’ indiscretions are consistently publicised – in the last year and a half we’ve become aware of John Terry’s extramarital affairs and Steven Gerrard’s Phil Collins-induced scuffle to name just two. In addition to this, a host of drinking-related occurrences have made their way into tabloid headlines. Rightly or wrongly, both Terry and Gerrard have been chastised by the general public for engaging in morally questionable behaviour. The vilification of the duo has been justified on the basis of their standing; the Chelsea and Liverpool captains are idolised by children worldwide, and such behaviour sets a bad example. Despite their fame and fortune, Terry and Gerrard are regular human-beings, prone to error and wrongdoing just like the rest of us. Footballers have a lot of pressures put upon them, but is the burden of having to act as a good role model one of them?

For many, the mandatory obligation of acting as a good role model is a given. Some are vehement in this insistence, with Spurs manager Harry Redknapp stating (of footballers) that “if they don’t want to be role models they shouldn’t be in football.” Redknapp further asserts that such good behaviour is a small price to pay for the financial benefit and ‘celebrity’ status that is attached to the profession, adding that “Kids look up to them every day and wear their shirts, they are in the public eye and they get very well-paid to be in the public eye.”

Redknapp’s views are echoed by those within the political sphere. Former UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell noted that “players should remember they have become famous because fans admire them and they are role models.” Gordon Brown exacerbated the importance of footballers’ professional responsibility by highlighting the far-reaching implications of their actions. Writing in The Sun, the former Prime Minister said “Whether they like it or not our footballers have a greater responsibility than anyone else, because they are so idolised and respected by our young people. It makes it so much harder for parents, schools, the police and the Government to teach respect and tackle anti-social behaviour if some of our children’s biggest role models are teaching them the opposite.”

However, this view is not shared by all. Some believe that like all other professions, a footballer’s ‘work’ life and private life should remain separate. The removal of the England captain’s armband from John Terry is an example of an issue in the Chelsea man’s private life unfairly affecting his ‘work’ life. A bank manager or lawyer would not be reprimanded at work for such behaviour, so why should John Terry? The Times columnist Simon Barnes furthers this argument by stating that football is “just a game, it doesn’t have any pretensions to be a moral force, for good or evil. That’s not its job.”

Another argument put forth concerns the priorities of the footballer. A footballer’s primary obligation is to perform to the best of his abilities for his club or country; as long as they deliver the goods on the pitch, we shouldn’t really care what they get up to in their spare time. The highly-pressurised nature of football means that players, like all other workers, are entitled to blow off some steam from time to time. Whilst Arsene Wenger’s impact upon the domestic mentality has diminished the drinking culture that was formerly rife within the English game, former Aston Villa manager John Gregory famously stated that “I don’t want angels in the team. In fact they can get out of their brains every night as long as they are man of the match on Saturday.”

The main theory in favour of being portrayed as a good role is the impact of a footballer’s behaviour upon children. However, this unnecessarily detracts from the main influence within a child’s life – that of their family and other close persons around them. Criticism of footballers’ conduct on the basis of the impact it has insults the intelligence of many children and young adults, choosing to omit the fact they may be much more likely to follow the well-behaved examples of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs or Lionel Messi, instead of the likes of Ashley Cole and Joey Barton.

Whilst most fans would prefer for their beloved players to be making back-page news instead of front-page headlines, on-field performances mean that footballers over time have been forgiven for a range of off-the-field sins – should England win the World Cup, John Terry’s indiscretions will be swiftly forgotten. The issue of whether footballers should be role models is a divisive one and one we’ll never reach a consensus upon.

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