While many American children believe athletes motivate them to follow their dreams, they’re also mimicking the bad behavior of their sports heroes on the playing field, a new study says.
In what is believed to be one of the first national studies examining kids’ perceptions of athletes’ behavior both on and off the field, researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation say many kids are learning lessons about sports and life from watching famous athletes.
While Charles Barkley proclaimed he wasn’t a role model, kids ranked famous athletes among the most admired people in their lives (73 percent) — second only to their parents (92 percent).
Nine out of 10 kids said famous athletes teach children mostly “good things.” But some of the lessons learned from athletes are less than admirable, researchers say.
Three-fourths of the 1,500 10- to 17-year-olds and 1,950 parents surveyed said athletes teach children that being a good sport and playing fair are as important as winning. Nearly all said they understand that excelling in sports takes hard work and dedication, and 93 percent said famous athletes are motivational.
By the same token, one in five teens surveyed said kids learn from professional athletes that you “don’t have to worry about the consequences of sex,” and 16 percent said kids learn it’s OK to use alcohol and drugs.
“This topic is very deserving of our attention because the fact of the matter is observational learning is one of the primary means in which children learn,” said William Gayton, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and chair of the psychology department at the University of Southern Maine. “And children are going to learn from the models in their life — including their sports heroes.”
Learning From Heroes
Most kids surveyed believe it is common for sports figures to yell at a referee or official (74 percent); taunt or “trash-talk” an opponent (62 percent); use steroids or other banned substances to get an edge on the competition (52 percent); and take cheap shots or hit an opponent (46 percent).
And while most kids still think it is “never OK” to be a bad sport — 87 percent think it’s wrong to take a cheap shot against an opponent, for example — many young athletes are nevertheless mirroring the example set by their favorite sports heroes.
Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said it is common for young athletes to yell at a sports official during a game. Kids believe taunting an opponent is also commonplace (62 percent) in youth sports, as is taking a cheap shot or hitting someone on the opposing team (45 percent).
“Some of this bad behavior we’re seeing in professional sports is filtering down to local school yards and gyms around the country,” said Tina Hoff, the director of Kaiser’s Public Health Information, who helped develop the survey and analyze the results. “The general disrespect we’re seeing on the playing field is running counter to what I think a lot of people hope sports does for kids, which is to promote sportsmanship and teamwork.”
“Kids … will definitely take their cue from their heroes on TV,” said Bob Still, public relations manager for the National Association of Sports Officials. “Four years ago, when [Cleveland Indians second baseman] Roberto Alomar spit on umpire John Hirschbeck, we had never had an incident like that before at the youth level. But after that, we had three calls reporting spitting” at youth sports officials.
Promiscuity and the Law
The survey also suggests kids view the general character of athletes as negative. Although kids largely agreed athletes were smart and worked hard, two in three described sports stars as being “into money” and 40 percent called them cocky and arrogant.
Many kids also believed athletes get special perks off the field for their talent. Nearly one in four (24 percent) children surveyed said it isn’t necessary to study hard and finish school if you are successful at sports. Thirty-four percent also believed sports stars received special treatment if they break the law.
On the topic of sexual behavior, the teens in the survey differed in their responses from youngsters aged 10-12. While 45 percent of 10-12 year olds said famous athletes were less likely to engage in promiscuous sex compared with the rest of society, 27 percent of teens surveyed said sports stars could have sex with whomever they chose. About one in three teens also perceived wild parties and careless sex as regular parts of the social lives of famous athletes.
While studies suggest and experts generally believe kids emulate athletes’ behavior when playing sports, the same cannot yet be said about mimicking off-the-field behavior. “We’re still learning about that,” said Gayton.
In the meantime, the Kaiser study is seen as a wake-up call to parents about what kids are learning from watching sports and reading about athletes.
“Kids are more savvy media consumers than before, but they’re still kids,” Hoff said. “We do still need to recognize that there are lots of messages that they might be taking away from sports that are being integrated into their thinking about acceptable behavior.”