So what is a role model?
Before I give you the definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary – itself a role model, dare I say, in the world of words – just put the paper down, and have a think about that question… what is a role model? Who, if you have or have had any, are yours? What are the qualities that made you define them as such?
OK, how did that go? Are you back with me? So here is the first thing that comes up if you ask Google to provide you with the Oxford Dictionary view: “A person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.”
Now, I yield to nobody in my admiration of the Oxford English Dictionary, its role in the establishment, explanation and dissemination of language norms – and adaptations. Precisely for that reason, I must take issue with the definition I quote above: “A person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.” Why does it have to be limited to “a person”? Other dictionary compilers look to the OED as their role model, an example to be imitated, as it has been for so many similar products in different languages all over the world.
For much of British history, though not today as our MPs vote in favour of breaking international law, and against feeding hungry children or reuniting the children of refugees with their parents, our parliament was seen as a role model for other parliaments around the world. The BBC, the NHS, our military, MI5, MI6, our civil service, our judicial system, our universities, our arts organisations – Britain has been blessed with a disproportionate number of institutional role models down the years, which have been a big part of our soft as well as hard power, and which makes it all the more strange that our current government has something of a death wish for most of them, a trait which will hopefully contribute to its own demise before too long.
But if we are to limit role models to a human form, as per the OED, who came to mind when I asked that question? This area, believe me, is fraught. The only time I can recall being howled at by a live TV audience was when I was on a panel for a kind of Youth Question Time at the time footballer Ched Evans was in the news because a club was seeking to sign him despite his conviction for rape, for which he had spent two and a half years in jail.
This was before his conviction was overturned, so my view, that having served his sentence he should be allowed to resume his career, was even more unpopular than it might be today, as he plies his trade under another ‘bad boy footballer’, Fleetwood Town manager Joey Barton.
“But he is a role model,” the howlers shouted at me.
“No, he is not a role model, because role models are people we want to emulate, and I hope none of the young men here want to go to jail for rape.”
“No, but lots want to be footballers.”
“So what? Footballers are not role models unless they chose to be something other than footballers. They are… footballers.”
“So who are role models?” a howler shouted.
“In an ideal world,” I said, “parents are role models. Teachers are role models. MPs and ministers and priests and bishops should be role models.”
Now the loudest howl came from close to home.
“Dad!!!” shouted a voice I recognised from that one syllable, “please stop … this is embarrassing.” My daughter Grace had come along to keep me company. She suddenly decided to take part from the sidelines.
I knew I would not win that argument, with that audience, at that time. But I still stand by what I said, and that has nothing to do with how the Ched Evans case turned out.
I repeat: “Footballers are not role models unless they chose to be something other than footballers. They are footballers.” Just because a young boy is very good at football, and gets signed by a professional club when at primary school, is playing for that club’s first team when most people his age are still taking exams, perhaps playing for his country by the time his school pals go to college or get a job, why does that automatically mean they are role models?
Why on earth should we expect them to have the moral purity of a nun, the emotional intelligence of a therapist, the political nous of a diplomat, the commitment to their community of a philanthropist, and be very, very good at football too?
The equating of football fame with the status of role model in society is little more than a convenient tactic for media organisations whose business model depends largely on famous people doing things, preferably of a sexual nature, that allow their readers to go “tut tut”.
Given recent events, and his campaign for the extension of free school meals, I am sure that Marcus Rashford popped into a few minds when I asked that question at the top. He is indeed a role model.
But he wasn’t born one. He didn’t become one when he signed for Manchester United aged seven, or when he made his first-team debut for them, or when he first played for England. He may have been a role model for fellow young professionals watching him train harder and play better than everyone else. But that is it.
Marcus Rashford has become a role model because off the field, away from football, he has displayed qualities that very much make him “a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated”.
Indeed, his Twitter feed has of late become the embodiment of that definition as individuals and organisations have followed his lead in signing up to feed hungry children, the government and its nodding dog MPs having decided this is not their role, other than on the one occasion when they thought a short-term U-turn and an MBE might shut Rashford up.
I also stand by the argument that MPs should be role models. Presidents and prime ministers should definitely be role models, not for the jobs they do, for very few can aspire to do them, but for the qualities they display. Rashford has struck the chord he has not merely because he is a very nice young man with a cause, but because he is displaying qualities which ought to be on display from those in actual positions of leadership, such as Boris Johnson here, and Donald Trump in the US.
There have always been people outside politics making a difference, and Rashford is certainly a special young man. But his specialness is in large part so evident because of the glaring contrast with the two politicians we see most regularly on the news, night after night displaying a distinct lacking in any and all of the qualities we associate with role models, let alone leaders.
When I asked myself the same question – who are my role models? – I couldn’t settle on a single person, so I went for 10 qualities instead, that we should at least strive for, and seek to imitate.
So here is a little scoring game you can all do. On this chart, mark each of the three names out of 10, against each quality in the column on the left.
Johnson Trump Rashford
Leading by example
Taking serious issues seriously
Putting others first
Not kicking away the ladder
That Rashford scores highly is great for him, his campaign, and the image of a sport that needs a fair bit of help right now. That our actual leaders score so badly is a real problem for the world. Here’s hoping that one of them, at least, will be gone very very soon.