Food For Thought

Who's Your Role Model?

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

Every time I hear about another professional athlete getting into legal trouble, I want to scream.

Itís not so much the law-breaking that bothers me ó itís the follow-up statements by analysts who claim that these individuals shouldnít have done the illegal or immoral act because they are ďrole models for our youth.Ē

Professional athletics, like movies and other high-visibility entertainment occupations, will have their share of individuals who do things unacceptable to society. These folks break laws just like ordinary people. They have personal problems like ordinary people, and they live and die like the rest of us. They belong to the human race and, before we start referring to them as role models, letís make sure they have earned the moniker by doing something really worthwhile. Making a lot of money or displaying great athletic skills are not reasons for a person to be considered a role model.

I would hope that every childís role models would be mom and dad; but in the real world, thatís probably a bit naive. Kids look at whatís popular in society and naturally want to be part of that. I have a sweatshirt with words written on the front proclaiming Iím the worldís greatest grandfather. I know thatís not true, but my grandkids gave it to me so I wear it. I, like millions of other fans, also wear shirts that have the colors of my favorite sports teams and usually the number of some star player. Iím a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan and wear Steelers apparel a lot, especially since they have become winners. As a kid growing up in western Pennsylvania, I went to Steelers games when they seldom won. They even practiced at the college where I got my undergraduate degree, and a former Steelersí tight end named Val Jansentte was my high school football coach.

Two years ago I read an article in a sports magazine about the Steelersí Super Bowl MVP, Hines Ward, which included information about his ethnic background. He is both African-American and Asian. My adopted grandson Brandon is Asian, so I decided to make a collage of pictures that included Brandon, his grandmother, and Hines Ward making a Super Bowl catch.

Wardís ability to overcome some of the problems associated with a multi-ethnic background, along with his work in helping Asian children, are traits I admire. I also like his work ethic. I sent the picture to the Steelersí front office and asked if they could forward it to Hines for a signature. I told him about my grandson and other family history that led to Brandonís adoption, hoping that Ward would sign the picture. Iím pleased to say he did and it now hangs on a wall in Brandonís home. I also have a copy hanging in my house. I thought about doing the same thing with Tiger Woods because of his ethnic background. But I just never sent the collage to Woods ó somehow, I had the feeling he wouldnít sign it. Now Iím glad I didnít. Athletes, like movie stars, provide us with entertainment ó period. Seldom do they earn the status of role model. Mr. Woods will realize itís much easier to accumulate and keep money than it is to be a genuine role model.

Hanging on the wall next to me are pictures of myself and several politicians. Iím trying to figure out why I have their pictures on the wall. I guess I wanted to show others that I have a connection to the political community. I know itís not because I think they are role models. Politicians seldom rise to the level of role model, although they should. The failure of a politician to reach role-model status is as much a reflection on the voter as the politician. There just arenít many Honest Abes around. Our political system centers on money, and when money is involved, there is increased potential for mischief. You donít have to look hard to find the bad in politics, so maybe itís best to move in another direction when seeking role models.

Older people should be role models for our youth. Aging implies a certain level of maturity and by extension, respect; but age alone doesnít automatically warrant role-model status. Iíve always told my children that just because someone is a senior citizen doesnít mean you must respect them. Respect should be earned. Iíve also emphasized to my children that you shouldnít show disrespect ó offer common courtesy to seniors whenever you can. When each of us reaches senior status, letís hope we will have gained the respect of our immediate family. Maybe then we can eliminate the need for some athlete to serve as a role model.

When I think of ďrole model,Ē a few individuals stand out: Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham, Mother Theresa, and Pope John Paul II. Some in the sports community, like Arnold Palmer and Tony Dungy, also stand out. These individuals exhibited traits espoused in the Ten Commandments and, really, those 10 rules are all you need. All kids need to do is be able to recognize those good traits. Role models are individuals who live in various environments displaying those traits over an extended period of time.

As a society we expect people in some professions ó such as teachers, doctors, law-enforcement officers, clergy and nurses, to name a few ó to display those valued traits. Politicians and lawyers should be in that category but ... Iíll let you finish the sentence.

As for entertainers and athletes, enjoy what they do and admire the money they make, just donít elevate them as role models. The description ďrole modelĒ should require the individual to exhibit the highest standards of human behavior.

It would be a much better world if all moms and dads met these ďrole modelĒ standards. This grandpap still needs a little fine tuning. 

Whats Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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