Recent stories of England cricketers doing some odd things after hours in bars is part of a long narrative about professional (mostly male) athletes behaving in ways that would lose you your job in the wider workforce. Really? Try bringing your organisation into disrepute and see how you go with your chief executive, your board or general manager.
I don’t necessarily believe elite athletes need to be held to a higher standard than others. Just the same standard will do for a start. But what about when you are off the job ‑ ‘in private’ as it were? If we individually can be identified with our employer while we misbehave in the glare of publicity, then does the employer have a case for complaint?
So the question is whether or not an international athlete, on tour is always ‘on the job’? Under their last ECB Central Contract, England test cricketers are on a base salary of around £700,000 per annum plus £12,000 per test, £5,000 per ODI and a £2,500 T20 fee. Well it doesn’t come close to the big football, NFL, baseball or basketball salaries. But it’s more than most of us would earn in a decade or more. For New Zealand readers, £700,000 is around NZ$1.388 million. The pay is in anticipation of outstanding performance for their country at the highest level of performance and accompanied by a code of conduct.
And shouldn't all players understand the need for and abide by a code of conduct? Surely that's part of the talent development pathway.
So what do we feel about those great players greeting friends with a head butt, pouring beer over their colleague’s head, both events at a late night bar or rugby union and league players being caught allegedly supply cocaine. Well it’s certainly fair that a sports code protect its brand and reputation. Sponsors care about the behaviour of those with whom they have paid to be associated. Look how fast they leave when things go wrong!
So again, does the employer have a case for complaint? Does being highly paid, the subject of image-makers, held up as an exemplar of excellence mean you should behave better and smarter? I suggest yes. Let’s flip the argument round. We certainly wouldn’t want our children behaving this way. A mixed message of adults saying one thing and doing another is often cited in research by children as confusing.
Like it or not, elite athletes have a unique opportunity to use their fame and public profile to positively influence young people. And if it works positively, regretfully, it can work negatively. Athletes can’t have it both ways. NBA player Charles Barkely's line "I am not a role model" doesn't cut it and flies in the face of evidence. They are and they do – model that is. Positively and negatively.
So coaches, what do you say to your players by way of explaining head butts and beer on the head. Do you laugh it off and say they’re not role models, it’s not important? And if so, where do you draw the line? When does it get to be important enough to say this is not good and not worthy of copying?
(photo source: Dailymail.com)
Reference: Jonson, P.T., Lynch, S. & Adair, D. (2013). The contractual and ethical duty for a professional athlete to be an exemplary role model: bringing the sport and sportsperson into unreasonable and unfair disrepute, Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Journal, 8(1), pp55-88.