The trouble with boys

Observations on role models

''I am not a role model," the basketball player Charles Barkley announced in a 1993 Nike advert. "I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court."

Those who manage and comment on football would have done well to heed Barkley's words this past fortnight. In Britain, we still expect our sports stars to behave like role models - and feel outraged when they harass women in nightclubs, get convicted of drink-driving, arouse suspicions of drug-taking and thump each other during the half-time break. Journalists expect today's multimillionaire football stars to conform to the standards of a golden age when footballers were supposedly men of impeccable character who never drank more than half a pint after a match. No matter that for every Gary Lineker or Bobby Charlton, there has always been a Paul Gascoigne or George Best. Continually harping on about the "good old days" remains one of football fans' most distinctive characteristics.

Still, the ideal of the sporting role model is now so outdated that its very persistence is intriguing. Where does it come from? And why has it survived so long?

The belief that sportsmen have a special duty to behave well goes back to the 19th century. In the public schools presided over by headmasters such as Thomas Arnold, there arose a belief that character was the chief repository of Christian virtue. Character, according to the proponents of "muscular Christianity", could be instilled through a combination of vigorous moral instruction and games-playing. This led to the belief that physical robustness and moral purity were in some way connected.

But just because a person is capable of submitting to one type of discipline (required to become a top-flight athlete) is no guarantee that he or she is more likely to submit to another (behaving like a paragon). Many of today's footballers become famous while still in their teens. Having focused on football from an early age, their lives are likely to have been extremely sheltered. It is hardly surprising that, suddenly cast into the limelight, many are ill-equipped to deal with the pressures and temptations of fame.

But there is another issue. When feminism was gaining ground in the 1970s and 1980s, it was girls who were felt to be most in need of positive role models. It was thought that in the absence of female executives, lawyers, bankers, doctors and so on, young women needed the example of older women to demonstrate that it was possible for them to succeed in education and in professional careers.

Today, there is no shortage of inspiring female role models. Even our expecta-tions of girls' and boys' sexual roles have altered. Could Germaine Greer's new book, The Boy, celebrating the beauty of the male form, have been published as little as five years ago?

It is now boys, lagging behind girls at school, who are thought to need adult role models of the same gender. But the sporting role model, even if it could be cleaned up, is hardly relevant to most young boys, who can never aspire to a career in football or any other sport. If anything, it reinforces their belief that males are mere physical beings to whose animal spirits academic success has no relevance.

Is there an alternative? Pop stars are one possibility: the behaviour of today's highly manufactured boy bands and girl bands is far more controlled than footballers' behaviour, because they are designed to appeal largely to a pre-teen audience and, therefore, need parental approval. But do we really want all our young men to aspire to pop stardom? When it comes to male role models, we're desperate - and that's why we care so much about footballers.