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.

Dave Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Enlarge photo»

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.

After “family,” teens mention teachers and coaches (11 percent), friends (9 percent), and pastors or other religious leaders they know personally (6 percent). It is notable that a majority of teens indicated that the people they most admire and imitate are those with whom they maintain a personal connection, friendship or interaction.

This is not to say that student athletes do not looking to pattern their careers after professional and collegiate stars.

"I love watching Steve Nash play," Natalie Mecham, former Davis High girls’ basketball standout, now with Idaho State, said in an email. "I notice the patience he has with his teammates, coaches and with himself. But what I admire the most is that He. Works. His. Butt. Off. I also loved that he still enjoyed the game. I want to develop that."

Current Roy High School softball player Addie Aiken, a sophomore, also looks up to a player whose game is similar to Aiken's own.

“I look up to (University of Oklahoma star and U.S. National Team member) Keilani Ricketts," Addie says, "because she is a lefty pitcher like me, is really athletic, and looks like she really loves the game.”

The Barna Group study showed that no matter who the teen chose for their role model, those participating in the study described a wide range of reasons why they named that particular person. The most common rationale (26 percent) was because of personality traits. For example, some of the listed traits included caring about others, being loving and polite, being courageous, and being fun. Twenty-two percent of the participants in the study also chose people that they would like to emulate; they would like to “follow in the footsteps” of their chosen role model.

Additionally, 11 percent of the teens stated that encouragement is a big reason for who they choose as a role model. Specifically, those responding to the survey stated that they like people who "help me to be a better person," or "someone who is always there for me." Young athletes generally appear to be taking a careful look at who they choose to emulate.

Perhaps the best attitude of all athletes toward role models interviewed belongs to Jonah Larsen, a sophomore football player at Riverton High School.

When asked who his role model is, Larsen said, "I don't really have a role model. I want to be like me and be the best that I can be."

Johnny Who?

Chris is a graduate of the University of Utah and Santa Clara Law School and practices law in Heber, is a father of four, an avid fly-fisherman, and announcer of many Morgan High School sports events. Email him at: cvcinutah@gmail.com.

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