Prep athletes growing less interested in professional, collegiate role models

By Chris VanCampen

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 17 2013 12:15 p.m. MDT

Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel talks with reporters during the Southeastern Conference football Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Manziel made quite a stir during the football offseason for himself. In separate incidents, he was kicked out of a football camp, investigated for violating NCAA rules and suspended for one-half of a football game. He also was arrested for a fight in 2012 and pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge.


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By now we’ve all seen and heard the stories of Johnny Manziel, aka "Johnny Football."

The Heisman. The high expectations. The blown-off commitments. The boorish on-field behavior. The suspension and benching by his coach.

Parents see this and cringe.

“This is who my kids are looking up to?” they may ask themselves.

With the emergence of the internet and the proliferation of social networks, athletes and other public figures are becoming more closely monitored by the press and public. Behaviors that used to be “behind closed doors” are now observed, photographed, recorded, instantaneously broadcast “virally” across the planet and subjected to intense scrutiny by bloggers, journalists and talking heads. Any level of bad behavior is suddenly out there for the public to see.

Lori Larsen, a parent of a student athlete in Riverton, says, "I feel like we've created a society of egocentric narcissists and empowered them with wealth and prosperity. They've never felt the true consequences of their actions, but have been protected at every turn."

Larsen believes such a mentality leads to issues both on and off the competetive field of play. She says, "One of the greatest disservices to our children is the inability to fail. More true strength comes in failure than in anything else, which is why I love sports so much."

Yet, it has become more difficult to find role models, examples to whom parents can point their kids for guidance on how to play sports and live life.

According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 15 percent of American parents view professional athletes as good role models for their children. Sixty-one percent say they are not.

But don't be so sure kids always look to athletes as role models. Local student athletes seem to be doing a fine job of searching out appropriate role models all on their own. Many look to those around them for examples rather than to professional or collegiate sports.

Former Fremont baseballer Dalton Aiken, now playing at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colo., says, "I look up to my grandfathers because of their patience, kindness, courage and leadership."

His sister Jaime, a softball player at Roy High who now plays for Dawson Community College in Glendive, Mont., says she has similar role models.

“I look up to my grandma Judy," Jaime says, "She’s a woman business owner and has high determination and high values.”

According to Kelly Aiken, a long-time coach of young athletes, older kids tend to find role models in those with qualities they like to emulate, such as perserverance and hard work. Younger kids, Aiken says, are more dazzled by on-the-field success when making decisions about who to look up to.

"Young people generally look up to other athletes," he says.

The Barna Group, a California-based research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture, also had a similar finding in a recent study. Their research showed that younger athletes look to stars like LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Mike Tyson to be their role models.

However, that same research showed that most teens look to those around them for examples. Even while limiting the survey answers to non-parents, family members still come out on top as the best role models.

The most commonly mentioned role model is a relative — 37 percent of teens named a relation other than their parent as the person they admire most. This is typically a grandparent, such as in the case of the Aiken siblings, but can also include sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles.