Sport & Connected Communities

Footballers are role models when it comes to being good at football. Everything else is just noise

Barcelona and four time winner of Ballon d'Or

We noted in an earlier post how the use of the term role model in relation to professional footballers had increased quite noticeably over the past 15 years, with five mentions in 2000 and over 170 mentions in 2014. Having carried out the bulk of our research with young people, under the aegis of the AHRC Connected Communities programme, we’re now in a position to make some tentative claims about what we have found. Now, of course, the study is a pilot and the sample was far from representative – we spoke to young people from two schools in Norfolk and two schools and a community centre Sheffield – but the findings are interesting as they were pretty much uniform across all of the participants who varied quite significantly in terms of region (most obviously!) but also ethnicity, class, gender and club affiliation.
What we found pretty much across the board was that elite professional football players are admired for their skills and followed through a range of media platforms. Some use Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date on what their favourite players are doing and saying but all showed a healthy degree of cynicism towards what was done and said. In short there was no real evidence that football players are seen as role models beyond wanting to be as good as them at football (perhaps along with some of the material benefits this generates, though this was never dwelt on for long).

What was also noticeable was the fact that across all the young people we spoke to three names were consistently mentioned, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, who we came to see as the holy triumvirate of young people’s football aspirations and horizons! Most obviously for young people living in Norfolk and Sheffield, these players are first and foremost media stars, their performances viewed on satellite television (Sky covering La Liga on a regular basis) and subsequently scrutinised via countless Youtube clips, where particular goals, tricks, skills and celebrations were endlessly pored over and, usually, exulted). Interactive gaming, notably FIFA, also seemed important in generating knowledge of both foreign leagues, clubs and players and in allowing young people to experiment with playing styles (the aforementioned goals, tricks, skills and celebrations). Indeed, as an aside, we were told by more than one youth coach that the skills viewed and practiced in online environments were often transferred onto playing fields.

The fact is though, that the valorising of these three (and other skilled sport stars) does not mean that young people view their performances or lives uncritically as many of the more hysterical role-model debates suggest. Young people are not easy to impress at the best of times. Combine this with an informed knowledge of the game derived from a range of sources (the media, yes, but also friends, family and so on) and the healthy scepticism that negotiating with these different sources entails and you have a group that is a long way from the cultural dupes that purveyors of lazy clichés imagine them to be. I even think we should treat with caution the surveys which apparently show how many young people view footballers as role models. Simply ticking a box or writing down your favourite football player doesn’t really indicate why they are considered to be role models and I strongly suspect that as for our participants, young people admire their on-field skills and aspire to be like them, but only in that respect.

Put simply, the footballers as role model has become one of those pieces of ‘folk wisdom’ (folk nonsense?) that seems to be largely trotted out because surely it must contain a kernel of truth if it gets repeated that often. It’s also become a stick with which to beat overpaid young men who happen to be good at a high-profile sport. I’ll end this piece with an overheard conversation in a seminar last week. The two students (young men aged around 19) were discussing the Aston Villa player, Jack Grealish, a talented player who has been in and out of the first team this year. Grealish has been the subject of a fair amount of scandalised reporting, notably around his drinking and this was the subject of the conversation. However, far from viewing Grealish as a ‘role model’ or an inspiration, the two students were lamenting the fact that he was ‘pissing away his talent’. Again, young people aren’t stupid when it comes to these matters. They understand the rules of the game, the role of the media in hyping players and their indiscretions and they also understand (at least, to some degree) the pressures football players are under. Unless we find some actual evidence that Jack Wilshire smoking a fag in a Las Vegas Jacuzzi is encouraging young people to smoke, then I’d suggest that we give up on trying to pretend that footballers have this sort of power to influence young people – at least, when it comes to off-field activities.