Mickey Blue Eyes...
Football and Role Models
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Mickey Blue Eyes.


ANDREA: "Unhappy the land that has no heroes!"

GALILEO: "No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes."

The Life of Galileo, a play (1939) by Bertolt Brecht, scene 13.



"As soon as you're born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
'Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home, and they hit you at school
They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool
'Til you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be

When they tortured and scared you for 20 odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can't really function you're so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion, and sex, and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be

There's room at the top, they are telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
A working class hero is something to be

If you want to be a hero, well just follow me."
Working Class Hero,
a popular song (1970) by John Lennon.



I have been fortunate. I have never wanted or had a rôle model in my life. I have never even requested an autograph. But I have had and still have heroes. There is a difference. The former you follow slavishly, the latter you merely admire for their achievements or abilities. The pitfalls are obvious. Which is why I take mild issue with campaigner John Amaechi, who recently said, "...Just how many hundreds of thousands of pounds a week does it take for a footballer to start recognising that he should be a decent role model...Football has the capacity to be so influential in society that it can lead us all in a more enlightened fashion. Instead it chooses not to."


First, I think it a mistake to use anybody in public life as a rôle model. Second, football only has the cultural importance we give it. "Football" chooses nothing; it is a game. The reality of our present society is that far too much significance is attached to the cult of personality and the relevance of sports spectacles.


Perhaps our time would be better used re-considering both. Once out of early childhood why should anyone look for example in an individual or any trivial sport, however popular? Surely it is the job of family to provide children with the necessary tools of reason to get through life? After which, why not use your own common sense and intelligence? And why should earnings determine individual worth as "a decent role model"?


When you were a child you had heroes. Of course you did. We all did. But how did you cope with growing knowledge that all heroes have feet of clay? How did you cope with the fact that a universe with no heroes has never heard of you and doesn't give a shit about you - did you curl up in self-pity or resort to superstitious religion? Did it turn you into a desiccated bitter lemon or did it give you impetus to be Your Own Self? Did you cower in fear at the prospect of making your own decisions and enduring the results? Did you stop loving life and your family and friends?


The idea that leading football players should become rôle models is erroneous. It may be desirable, but that is another matter altogether. Some people have it in them, some don't, a few can even be helped into it. But you cannot make someone what they are not. Sometimes too much is expected of sportsmen in the public eye; when away from their game they are no different to anybody else. As individuals some are admirable, some innocuous, and some outright bad, and no amount of rôle modelling will change them. Surely the logical conclusion to that is someone should only become a role model if suited to it. Even then weaknesses should be considered. Nobody is perfect, nobody. After someone is placed on a pedestal the only thing left is for them to fall or be pushed off. Mainstream media are particularly good at that, and, sadly, too many fans follow their lead.


Moreover, even fictional personalities can be dangerous for an impressionable mind. Who can forget adverse social effects of outright monsters such as "Alf Garnett" and "Gordon Gekko." It didn't matter their creators clearly depicted one as an ugly racist bigot and the other as a worthless thief-in-a-suit, and wanted them viewed that way - some still saw them as funny or even anti-heroes. Such is the scatter-gun power of mass media. On the border between reality and fiction, Patton Lust for Glory was the last film viewed by Richard Nixon before he ordered the bombing of neutral Cambodia and Laos. The same danger is encountered when a real public figure falls from grace. Few of us can forget the tragedy that is Paul Gascoigne's struggle with life; there have been many others.


Perhaps the classic football paradox model-wise is the first true football rôle model, Bobby Moore, and the case of the missing bracelet. It happened prior to World Cup 1970 when a shop assistant accused him of trying to steal from a jewellery store. To say it was a shock is the understatement of all time. Bobby, squeaky clean captain of England, caught stealing!? The very idea was preposterous. Eventually charges were dropped, but the shop assistant never changed her story. Bobby survived the episode and remains the prime football rôle model to this day, memory enshrined in a statue at Wembley. You can't help wondering how that matter would turn out in our present culture. It was all a long way from the kind of promotion we see now for the David Beckham brand, or media jeering at Wayne Rooney as anti-hero.  


The main problem for would-be rôle model makers is how modern fans perceive those top football players who theoretically make the best examples. Many fans have little empathy with them because of their earnings and life style. Top players have become a separate social class, perceived as isolated in rural or suburban loneliness or behind blackened limousine windows. Often there is an air of unreality in the relationship, and, when it turns bad, sado-masochism. If it deteriorates to the level of audience to stage character then the rôle becomes just as vicarious and irrelevant. It becomes a charade for everyone except the very young and the very gullible. Structured access via formalised Meet the Players sessions only emphasises it, even though it is better than no contact at all.


As for football leading in an enlightened fashion, it is hard to dispute the possibility. The game's global popularity speaks for itself. But that possibility can only be realised through improved understanding by everyone connected with the game, fans included. Individuals who try to lead take on themselves a hard task that becomes impossible when inevitably they fall short; to do so takes more than public relations rôle model building - it requires innate character most would regard as admirable. How many people do you know like that?


Still, you have to start somewhere, however untidy or unsatisfactory.


John Lennon's song quoted above is an extreme example of the rôle model/hero conundrum. It was a glorious poetic rant against a system he came to detest as his political consciousness matured. It was also an assault on the whole concept of hero-worship. He wrote it the same year of Kent State University murders in the USA when four unarmed students, two of them women, were murdered by the Ohio National Guard in broad daylight. Thirteen others were wounded. The culprits have never been brought to book. It marked the beginning of the end of free-thinking idealism evolved in the 1960s. Lennon's frustration and inner outrage is apparent. When he decided to apply for American citizenship he disappeared from public view, as a rôle model if you will. When he resurfaced he was murdered too, thus cutting short his rôle modelling.


A second, gentler example is the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There are two minor tales which illustrate why. In the first, Russell published a short story with a hero named Prz, pronounced Pish, and offered a prize for the best reader's criticism. He awarded the prize to a reader who wrote, "This story is a lot of trz, pronounced tosh." In the second, amongst his "common sense" philosophy he once wrote, "We often hear of people willing to die for their country or cause. But not often do we hear of someone willing to live for their country or cause." Russell had no time for rôle models.


And the players? Admire their play. Then leave them alone. In the final analysis the only rôle model you will ever really know is yourself. Best make the most of it. It is the only chance you will ever get.





Comments about Football and Role Models
Everton FC "School of Psychologists".
Sloanie, E Port, 12:25 PM 20/07/2012
Mickey, I'm tempted to say this opinion is a lot of shrz, pronounced shit. But I won't because it's a cheap shot :o) Nice piece BTW. Agree with every word. It needed saying.
Spectator, Crosby, 8:33 AM 20/07/2012
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