kids and teenagers look at professional athletes as role models? This
question seems to have become much more prevalent in recent years.
A number of years ago, Charles Barkley of the NBA's Houston Rockets
answered this question in the resoundingly negative.
Barkley said that instead of athletes, kids should look at their parents
as role models. This point does make sense but is not always realistic.
Between all the commercials on television, all the products in the
stores, and the high public visibility of many pro athletes, it is
relatively easy to see how they could become people emulated by many
kids and teenagers.
Assuming that pro athletes are going to be looked at as role models,
might not some make better role models than others? There are many
positive role models out there. These would include such people
as recently retired New York Rangers hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who
won the NHL's award for sportsmanship 4 times in his 20-year career, and
baseball star Cal Ripken Jr., whose consecutive games played
streak is a feat hardly equaled in sports. There are also pro
athletes who don't exactly make the best role models. These would
include such people as basketball's Dennis Rodman and Latrell Sprewell.
Rodman, throughout his career, has undoubtedly been a brilliant
rebounder. At the same time, his work ethic and self-pitying
attitude are ones that no one should follow. Sprewell, for his
part, after having a verbal confrontation with his head coach, choked
and later threatened him.
What about in women's sports? The doors to athletics were truly
opened for the first time for women in 1972, when Title IX was passed.
Title IX was part of an education law that said that funding for all
academic and athletic educational programs had to be equitable, based on
gender. This meant, for example, that girls' athletic programs
could no longer be cut just to devote more money to football and also
that girls could not be denied a place on the football team, solely
because they were girls. In the last 25 years or so, the door has
opened wider and wider. In that time, the number of female
athletes who are positive role models has grown tremendously. This
list would include Billie
Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Monica Seles in tennis; Dot
Richardson in softball; Rebecca Lobo, Cynthia Cooper, and Sheryl Swoopes
in basketball; Janet Evans in swimming; Jackie Joyner Kersee in track
and field; and of course, Mia Hamm, Michelle
Akers, Julie Foudy, etc., in soccer. This is not at all to say
that the athletes who do not make the best role models are absent from
women's sports. Overall, however, I believe that there is a case
for there being more team camaraderie, fewer selfish attitudes, and a
higher level of character and integrity in women's sports.
Not only are there more, positive role models in women's sports than
ever before, the image put forward by these role models is different
than any put forward before. It's no longer a case of
polite tennis played by un-athletic ladies in long, white dresses.
It's fast-break basketball, soccer in the mud, and collisions at home
plate in softball. Also, and more importantly, the women mentioned
above have attained their goals through selflessness, courage, hard
work, and simply supporting each other.
Alright, to tie this all together, the focus will now switch to the
woman who I believe probably is the best role model in all of
professional sports -- Mia Hamm. Hamm is this, I feel, because of
what she does and who she is as a player and a person.
Although she has been given the title of 'best female soccer player in
the world,' by many, Hamm rarely talks about her own play in the way
that might be expected. When she does speak of it, it is always
either within a self-critique or, at most, a positive comment that is
secondary to what a teammate was able to do, i.e., "... was able to
finish the chance because of the great ball from Julie."
The list of Mia Hamm's accomplishments in the sport of soccer is very
long and could only be called astounding. A FEW highlights
include: the youngest woman ever to play for the national team (age 15);
the NCAA career assists leader with 72 (definitely an extremely
unselfish player); scoring a goal every 4.1 shots in college; and
selected as a three-time first team All-American. Added to Hamm's
lengthy list of honors, last summer, was the tying of the all-time US
goal-scoring record (97 goals; the men's world record is 77 by Pele).
What's the first thing that Mia did upon attaining very select company?
She thanked and praised her teammate Michelle Akers, the record-holder,
saying, "She does so much for the sport and I'm so proud to be her
teammate. I hope that some of that rubs off on me."
What other active professional athlete would make that statement?
Off the soccer field, Hamm takes her role as a public sports figure very
seriously. US Women's National Team practices and matches are
almost always overflowing with young girls and women seeking autographs.
Even after hours of practicing, team members always stop to sign.
During one of these sessions, Mia was quoted as saying, "This is
what it's all about. As soccer players growing up, we didn't have female
soccer role models to look up to. One of the reasons we have been
so successful is because our youth programs are strong." This
statement is not just an indication concerning the state of the sport.
It shows that Hamm recognizes what she means to the millions of female
soccer players around the United States. From her, and from all the
members of the national team, the sense of being the ones that lay the
foundation for the future of women's soccer in the US, is very great.
They truly feel a responsibility to the next generation of female soccer
Outside of athletics, Mia has also done well. She graduated from
the University of North Carolina with a degree in Political Science.
Just getting a degree is something that far too many Division 1 athletes
don't now do. In addition, while at UNC, she was inducted into the
university's highest honorary society.
Since such a small percentage of all athletes make it to the pros, the
importance of doing well, academically, and finishing one's education
cannot be oversold. Mia did both of these things.
What she does and who she is as a player and person, are what makes Mia
Hamm the, I think, best role model in all of professional sports.
From the importance of academics and finishing one's education, to her
on-field work ethic and selflessness towards her teammates, to the
responsibility she shows as a public figure, she manages to do it all.
The importance of this is in the fact that there are so many
professional athletes who currently have trouble accomplishing even one
of the three.
Finally, the very real possibility exists for a women's professional
soccer league to begin in the United States, after the Sydney Olympics.
In reference to this, Mia said at one point, "Soon women will have
a soccer league of our own. And the guys will be cheering for
us." Well Mia, this one already is.