Role Models – A Sociological Perspective

© Adobe Stock

“Society needs its Champions as heroes and as role models – athletes yes, but also coaches and officials.”


Katie Liston & Joseph Maguire

Role models, champions and sport: meaning and social impact – A sociological perspective

By Dr. Katie Liston (FHEA, FInstLM), Senior Lecturer,  Social Sciences of Sport,  School of Sport,  Faculty of Life & Health Sciences,  Ulster University, UK, and Professor Emeritus Joseph Maguire, PhD, FAcSS, Loughborough University, UK.

When thinking about role models in sport, typically sporting champions, past and present, spring to mind. Yet a sole focus on sporting performance reveals far less of the social stage on which the role model performs. We do not dismiss the mimesis to be experienced from celebrating sporting performances. Neither do we ignore those in leadership and decision-making positions, who may play a critical function in boosting heterogeneity and diversity in organisations. Rather, in emphasising the cultural making and shaping of sporting champions as role models, we see these models as embodying values that a society holds dear. These values are not universal or immutable: rather they are socially determined, that is, they vary in time and across social spaces. Thus we move beyond individualistic psychological approaches (such as role model traits or the cognitive distance between model and observer) and here consider the production and reception of role models.

Sporting champions as role models

What is it to be a sporting champion, why do they mean so much to people in different cultures and why are they regarded as role models? In a simple sense, a champion is someone who is the first among all contestants and in this regard, the word refers to the ability of an individual or team to win a contest. Yet, the origin of the word, in English, indicates a different usage and why people across the globe attach such meaning to them. The first usage emerged in the context of the medieval tournament and referred to the person who would act as a Champion of others; who would defend, support or Champion a cause – within sport or society at large. In this sense, athletes (but sport officials have also the potential to act in this way) are not simply Champions of their sport, but also of their local community and nation and sometimes, humanity as a whole. An example par excellence is the American boxer, Muhammad Ali. A Champion is said to possess special gifts and charisma: they perform ‘miracles’ and achieve the seemingly impossible. Athletes, for better and for worse, are our modern heroes(ines): symbolic representations of our cultural values and who we would wish to be. Champions are talented but, as heroes, their lives tell stories: about ourselves, to ourselves, but also to people from other nations. The Champion allows us to catch a glimpse of, and therefore aspire to what we could be: by representing us they make us vicariously fulfilled human beings. They are our modern heroes because sport has become the forum in which communal self-revelation occurs. We can observe Champions as heroes and experience the ‘sacred’, moments of exciting significance, while leaving behind the ‘profaneness’ of ordinary life.

Champions and society

Society needs its Champions as heroes and as role models – athletes yes, but also coaches and officials. They perform the manifest function of achieving sporting success for themselves and their local community and nation. But they also perform a more latent role: they are meant to embody the elements that a society values most. As idealised creations, they provide inspiration, direction and meaning for people’s lives. Champions as heroes act to unify a society, bringing people together with a common sense of purpose and values. In fact, that is precisely how modern sport developed from traditional notions of honour, decency, courage and loyalty. Despite this, the function of Champions as heroes is undermined by threats to authenticity and integrity. If the contest is tarnished by corruption, cheating, drug-taking or betting scandals, then the hero is diminished. So too are sport officials and the sporting federations they represent. As such, the economic, political and social capital that sport organisations can use for the betterment of humanity as a whole, or for specific social groups, is eroded. The contest is no longer a forum through which communal self-revelation is channelled. This lack of authenticity also occurs when the sport becomes too ‘make-believe’, is rigged by geo-politics or becomes too predictable due to unequal economic resources. Alternatively, athletes can become signs of resistance and offer glimpses of different social systems, ways of life and cultural values that can overlap with the stated position of a sporting federation, but, at other times, the Champion may be at odds with corrupt or biased officials.

The Champion can, as hero, embody the elements that a society holds most dear, but their integrity may also be undermined. The Champion may be a flawed genius – either due to the fact that they suffer from hubris and feel they do not need not to dedicate themselves to the level and intensity performance required, and/or because their private lives intrude on their status as heroes. In addition, our Champion may be less a hero and more a celebrity – they are famous but not heroic. Such fame is short-lived, and they fail one of the tests of a true Champion as hero – the test of time. Celebrity sport stars can once be famous, but be neither a Champion nor a hero, and then best forgotten. In understanding why Champions and role models mean so much to us and what impact they have, we have to consider the role sport plays in society.

Role models and the meaning of sport

Sport is both a separate world, with its own conventions, norms and practices, and a suspension of everyday life. It is also highly symbolic of society and is embedded in wider political-economic and socio-cultural currents. Here we can experience a form of exciting significance that we rarely, if ever, encounter in our daily lives, and also conduct a symbolic dialogue with fellow participants and spectators that reveals things about ourselves and others. People are laid bare in sport in ways which we cover up in everyday life. Sport, then, moves us emotionally and matters to us socially. That sport performs these functions relates to several reasons that dovetail with and highlight role models embodied as Champions.

Sports are mimetic activities where emotions flow more easily due to the creation of tensions that can involve imaginary or controlled ‘real’ danger, mimetic fear and/or pleasure, sadness and/or joy. We identify with our Champions and role models – in terms of their accomplishments but also the emotions they and thus, we, go through, in terms of a thrilling contest. Sometimes, our Champions fulfil their own and our dreams but, on other occasions, the tragedy of defeat must be endured. When sports are associated with matters of deep cultural and personal significance, they become important to fans too. Sporting events are thus mythic spectacles that provide the opportunity for collective participation and identification that serves as a means of celebrating and reinforcing shared cultural meanings. It is precisely because sports are a separate world that ‘suspends’ everyday travails, that they are able to celebrate shared cultural meanings that are expressed through and embodied by Champions as role models. The anthem, the emblem and the flag associated with sporting contests highlights how Champions represent the nation. Yet the symbolism of sport, and the role played by the Champion, can be deeper than mere nationalism and patriotism. It can cross borders too. How so?

Sport as a mirror of life

If social life is a game through which identities are established, tested and developed, then sports can be viewed as idealised forms of social life. Its rules and codes of play allow for a fair contest and a true test of ability. We insist on the authenticity and integrity of the contest – on formal rules and their fair enforcement – because we want any differences of worth to be based on merit. In real life, our class, ethnicity, gender or religion interfere and rig the game of social life and its outcomes. As such, its victors and losersare profane deceptive illusions. But, in sport outcomes have the potential to be sacred, real and authentic and Champions as role models embody such authenticity, integrity and commitment to these values. Increasingly, people look to ensure the integrity of sport off the field of play and seek role models who will lead that fight as well.

Sport is thus a dramatic representation of who we are and who we would like to be. Sports stadia are theatres and Champions act as role models through which we live out our hopes and dreams in a quest for significance: the excitement of the well-played game, uncertain as to its outcome, but its significance lying in what we have invested in it and in our role models, emotionally, morally and socially. Our Champions as our heroes express both the myths, and revered social values of a society, and the sports ethic that underpins involvement in sport. Athletes and officials have to take risks, to exhibit the hallmarks of bravery and courage and show integrity. Or not. That is why we remember, for better and for worse, these powerful role models.