Study Says Kids Emulate Athletes
What Kids Learn From Famous Athletes on and off the Field
By Tracy L. Ziemer
Oct. 13, 2000
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
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
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
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
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.”
Copyright 2000 ABCNEWS.com
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