ATHLETES AS
ROLE MODELS

. . . OR NOT

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Young, talented and charismatic men and women breaking records on the field, court or golf course are natural role models for children. The advertising industry spends billions of dollars to retain athletes for their products, while reinforcing their celebrity image. But what happens when the attention on the athletes' accolades moves from the score box to news of scandals, brawls, misbehavior or even crime? It raises the question whether athletes are the best role models. And if not, who is? Three professors address this question.

Randy RobertsRandy Roberts, distinguished professor of history, has chronicled how athletes have overcome challenges and broken racial barriers. He's written about how they've also plummeted from fame and the glory of championships.

Cheryl CookyCheryl Cooky, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology and women's studies, wants to understand why young women pursue sports and the way women's athletics are portrayed in media.

Bill HarperBill Harper, a professor of health kinesiology, along with an interdisciplinary team of faculty, staff and students, has used sports as a teaching tool in a summer camp to encourage low-income students to stay in school and say no to local gangs.

 

DIFFERENT KINDS OF HEROES

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Team for AmericaRandy Roberts, who has written more than 30 books, many of them about sports, knows the complexity of the athlete as role model. He's written about both sides of the spectrum: the 1992 assault trial of Mike Tyson, and most recently, the legacy of the brave college football players at Army and Navy who balanced preparing for World War II while wowing the nation on the football field.

"These guys are in their 80s and 90s, and speaking to them was incredible," says Roberts of the men he interviewed for his recent book. "In 1944, Army was ranked No. 1 and Navy No. 2. The war stopped for just a few hours so they could play this game. Even though most sports had been suspended during World War II, this game represented the country's deepest patriotism."

That's changed as today's young athletes are often caught up in scandals and sometimes even crime.

 

MORE THAN JUST A GAME

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While the good sometimes go bad off the court, other athletes change society for the better. A common theme in Roberts' research is how a playing field, or boxing ring, also represents more than scoreboards and statistics in American history. Race and civil rights are a recurring issue.

 

JOE LOUIS AND RACE

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Joe LouisIn "Joe Louis: Hard Times Man," Roberts chronicled a great fighter's life while dealing with racial issues in the early 20th century. At the time, the boxing ring was the only arena where black and white people could meet on equal terms.

Joe Louis, also known as the Brown Bomber, won the heavyweight title in 1937 and announced his retirement as the undefeated world champion in 1949. During his reign, he defended his title 25 times, and in his career he knocked out six boxers who had held or would hold the heavyweight title and two who had claimed the light-heavyweight crown.

Louis was the first black athlete who was adored by all in America, says Roberts, who was featured in the HBO documentary "Joe Louis: America's Hero ... Betrayed" that aired in 2008.

 

ROBERTS IN PRINT

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Randy Roberts
  • "Before the Curse: The Chicago Cubs' Glory Years, 1870-1945"
  • "A Team for America: The Army–Navy Game That Rallied a Nation"
  • "The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub: A Random History of Boston Sports"
  • "Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler"
  • "Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes"
  • "Winning Is the Only Thing: Sports in America since 1945"
  • "Heavy Justice: The State of Indiana v. Michael G. Tyson"
  • "But They Can't Beat Us: Oscar Robertson and the Crispus Attucks Tigers"
  • "The Steelers Reader"
 

Cheryl CookyCheryl Cooky, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology and women's studies, wants to understand why young women pursue sports and the way women's athletics are portrayed in media.

GIRL POWER

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Courtney Moses

This summer will mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX, game-changing legislation that leveled the playing field for female participation in college sports. Universities are required to balance the same sport resources for men and women. While Title IX has advanced women's sports, there are still challenges for equality. Cooky looks at this in two ways — media coverage of women's sports and young girls' interest in participating in recreational sports.

 

RESEARCH

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Tennis

VolleyballCooky has studied the sports participation and interest of girls ages 8-15 in urban environments of Los Angeles and Chicago, and next will compare how urban and rural environments shape girls' interest.

Cooky quote

INFLUENCING PUBLIC POLICY

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Girl Gender

Cooky also conducted research on girls' and women's sport participation in Montenegro. The results from this study are helping to inform Montenegrin public policy. She continues to consult with sport and government leaders to increase and improve participation in sports.

 

TO SEE IS TO BELIEVE

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Sports

Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Abby Wambach and Tamika Catchings are just a few of today's great, female athletes, and Cooky advocates that not enough is done to show young girls their athletic accomplishments. If female athletes are featured, it's often because they are in the news for what they wore or whom they are dating.

Cooky is part of a team based at the University of Southern California that analyzes the media coverage around the popular national tournament for women's college basketball. She has found that there are significant differences between media coverage of men and women. When women are covered it is often to focus on their looks, what they are doing off the court or their romantic lives.

 

FINDINGS

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The researchers' most recent analysis in 2009 found that even though the quantity of women's media coverage experienced an upward trend in the 1990s -- from 5 percent to nearly 9 percent of total sports coverage since data collecting commenced in 1989 -- the quality of coverage has not improved.

Cooky quote
 

FUNDING AND PARTNERS

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  • Clifford B. Kinley Trust in the Purdue Office of the Vice President for Research
  • Women's Sports Foundation
  • University of Southern California Center for Feminist Research
  • LA 84
  • United Nations Development Programme
  • International Olympic Committee
  • Montenegrin Olympic Committee
  • National Office for Gender Equity of Montenegro
 

Bill HarperBill Harper, a professor of health kinesiology, along with an interdisciplinary team of faculty, staff and students, has used sports as a teaching tool in a summer camp to encourage low-income students to stay in school and say no to local gangs.

SPORTS FOR LIFE

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PALSChildren as young as age 8 are considered possible recruits for gangs, says William Harper. Gangs often target low-income children, who have low self-esteem and few role models in their life. Purdue Athletes Life Success (PALS) program, run by Harper and co-directed by Kim Lehnen, the operations assistant, equips children who might fall into this demographic, with life skills, especially through fitness and sports, to be successful in life.

 

GROWING SELF-ESTEEM

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PALS

Gangs recruit based on friendship by seeking vulnerable children with few or no friends or providing children the promise of an instant family, Harper says.

"Involving kids in PALS keeps them busy in the summer and reinforces their self-esteem, helping them make friends or even encouraging them to reinvest in their own families," he says. "Last year, a kid told the staff, 'I didn't know I could make friends without being in a gang.'"

 

THE GAME PLAN

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Peer relationships lead to higher self-esteem, greater physical activity and hope for the future.

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BY THE NUMBERS

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StatisticsDuring the past 10 years, more than 2,000 children, ages 8-14, have spent time in the 20-day program that teaches children how to play sports, eat better, appreciate art, balance a checkbook, participate in service learning, plan careers and interact positively with their peers.

 
4 Pillars PALS
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TYPES OF ROLE MODELS

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PALS

Harper defines role models in two categories: the first-person and third-person.

"Sometimes these celebrity role models are created at a distance and are more image than reality. Not to say they aren't good or talented people, but they are third-person versions because there is a person in between who is writing or telling about them," Harper says.

Instead, the PALS program offers a first-person alternative that offers students daily interaction with college students. Part of the program's goal is to empower the participants, and each year, some of the older campers are selected to be trained as junior team leaders.

 

STAR SUPPORT

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Drew BreesSuper Bowl champion and former Boilermaker All-America quarterback Drew Brees is often in the national limelight for his athletic achievements and giving back to the city of New Orleans, which is still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. For many years, he has been affiliated with the PALS program, through financial support and participation.

"He's a role model from afar," Harper says. "But in the summer he visits camp to interact with the campers. He's dancing with them, giving away bicycles for positive behavior or teaching them to throw a football. He's not only a role model for our kids, but our staff, too."

 
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IMPACT

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PALSAfter 10 years, Harper has seen how the college students involved with PALS inspire children to stay in school or make good decisions. Part of the program's goal is to empower the participants. Each year, some of the older campers are selected to be trained as junior team leaders.

"It's a relationship. The campers get encouragement, constructive criticism or guidance, and they even seek the team leaders to confide in them or give them feedback."

 

FUNDING AND PARTNERS

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  • Drew Brees' The Brees Dream Foundation
  • Purdue Federal Credit Union
  • Department of Health and Kinesiology
  • Lafayette School Corporation
  • West Lafayette Community School Corporation
  • Tippecanoe School Corporation
  • Division of Recreational Sports
  • June and John Scheumann