New York may be the hub of the publishing industry but each April, Los Angeles shows off its literary stuff at the LA Times Festival of Books. People of all ages flock to the sprawling UCLA campus to attend author events, panel discussions, storytelling, cooking demonstrations and poetry readings.
The Festival of Books is easily one of my favorite weekends of the year. From volunteers facilitating the crowds to avid readers waiting in line for signings and vendors promoting their latest titles, the book festival brings together people from all parts of Southern California. Since it began in 1996, the Festival of Books has become the largest and most prestigious book festival in the country, attracting more than 130,000 book lovers each year, according to the Los Angeles Times web site.
Of the many panels I attended, The Athlete as Role Model is worthy of a mention on this site.
I was most interested in hearing Diana Nyad, once considered the greatest long distance swimmer in the world, and now a journalist and author. She was joined on the panel, moderated by David Davis, by Bill Dwyre, the gruff, stereotypical long-time sports editor at the Los Angeles Times. Allan Barra, author of numerous sports books, was scheduled to appear but was replaced at the last minute by Michael Ventre, who writes for a variety of outlets, including MSNBC.com.
I’m not sure the panel painted a clear picture of where athletes fall on the continuum between celebrity, entertainer and role model, but the discussion, which at an hour was way too short, did bring up some interesting points.
Davis started out by posing the question: Why are athletes perceived as role models? The answers varied but several common points were raised. Athletes are held to different (albeit unrealistic) standards than actors and entertainers. While money and the media creates exposure for the athletes, they are often put on a pedestal without wanting the position.
Those that truly are role models transcend the sport and reach beyond championships. Dwyre pointed out Muhummad Ali and Andre Agassi as examples of athletes who are good role models. They stay with us years after their sports careers are over and use their celebrity for the greater good. In the case of Agassi, he started out as a bad boy and not a very good role model but grew into the role as he matured and now raises millions of dollars for education and other causes.
Not surprisingly names like Charles Barkley, Michael Vick, and Michael Phelps were brought up. Reactions to each differed. In the case of the latter, it was generally agreed that a single lapse of judgment, for which Phelps sincerely apologized, shouldn’t adversely affect his image. It’s unfortunate that one negative photo (the bong pic) was magnified far more than the many, many positive images. The reaction to Barkley was mixed. He relished his image as a rebel and even made a Nike ad saying “I’m not a role model” however when arrested for DUI, he took responsibility for his actions and seemed to accept his responsiblity as a role model. Vick, on the other hand, has never shown remorse for his actions (he was convicted of illegal dog fighting) and though he never claimed to be a role model, his public image may be irreparably damaged.
So what about the female athlete as a role model? Is it any different? Nyad pointed out that while we’ve come so far in other aspects of society, women’s sports still lag very far behind. There is a decided lack of publicity and traditional media is largely responsible for this lack of exposure. Since newspapers and magazines make deliberate decisions not to feature women’s sports (maybe that’s why they’re struggling) female athletes aren’t placed in as high esteem as many of their male counterparts.
The female athletes who are most revered in the media are generally involved in more “feminine” sports such as golf and tennis. Sports where a women’s athletic prowess is modeled after a man’s (dunking a basketball for example) attract much less media exposure. It is far more difficult for athletes involved in less feminine sports to rise up, probably because they don’t meet the media’s idealized version of how women should look and behave.
Cognizant of the media’s perception of female athletes, it was suggested to members of the soccer team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup to mention boyfriends and husbands in interviews whenever possible. Why was that important? Well apparently, the media would be more receptive to promoting them if their sexuality wasn’t questioned.
The fact is, there’s no shortage of female athletes worthy of being role models. These women possess talent and values that match or exceed their male counterparts. The challenge is to expose them to the public and showcase their extraordinary gifts.
If one of the measures of a role model is an individual that transcends their sport and uses their celebrity for the greater good, then female athletes are well-suited for this type of philanthropic pursuit (yes, I realize this may be reverse stereotyping). Just for the heck of it, let’s see what happens if media outlets are more inclusive. Help give women the platform to not only succeed on the playing field, but on the global stage as well.
I’m hoping to follow up with Nydad on this subject (and hopefully others) sometime in the near future. I’m certain she has a lot to contribute to the conversation and has some definite ideas on how to change the paradigm. Until then.