Brian Viner: Don't expect sportsmen to become 'role models'

I might not like Rooney's yobbish tendencies but I sympathise with him as a victim of pious hypocrisy
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The Independent Online

An invitation to the Manchester United and England footballer Wayne Rooney, who was due to make an appearance this week at the semi-final of an under-13s cup competition organised by the English Schools Football Association, has been withdrawn. The organisers decided that he is not "a suitable role model".

An invitation to the Manchester United and England footballer Wayne Rooney, who was due to make an appearance this week at the semi-final of an under-13s cup competition organised by the English Schools Football Association, has been withdrawn. The organisers decided that he is not "a suitable role model".

The ESFA, in conjunction with its main sponsor, Coca-Cola, took the view that a series of negative news stories about Rooney - including unproven allegations that he used prostitutes and slapped his girlfriend, Colleen McLoughlin, not to mention his tendency to swear liberally at referees - made his presence at the event undesirable.

A statement was issued, notable for its tortuous attempt to offend nobody. "We are not prejudging Wayne. But at this time there is a lot of reporting about his off-field behaviour. Obviously it is not known if this true." Obviously. And yet... "we felt under the circumstances, over what was being reported, that we could find a better role model."

This expression "role model" sticks in my craw. Where did it come from and what does it mean? When Rooney signed professional terms with Everton, the club he had supported since he was a toddler, his ambition was to become a great footballer, not a great role model.

Moreover, it was as a great footballer that he was willing - perhaps even pleased - to go to Middlesbrough to bless an under-13s football match between Summerhill School, Kingswinford, and Valley School, Nottingham, with his presence.

It was certainly as a great footballer that he would have been received by the youngsters taking part. They must have been beside themselves with excitement at the news that Rooney, scarcely six years older than themselves but already globally famous, was turning up to watch their match. How, one wonders, have they responded to the cancellation of their thrill? By promising never to use foul language, or by swearing at the rank unfairness of it all?

Because actually it is unfair; unfair on the kids, and unfair on Rooney too. I might not like his more yobbish tendencies, and shame on him if he did slap his girlfriend, but I sympathise with him as a high-profile victim of pious hypocrisy.

There is hypocrisy everywhere in this story. Coca-Cola should ask itself whether a 19-year-old footballer is ever likely to have one iota as deleterious an effect on a nation's youth as its own product. And the rest of us should ask ourselves whether we have any right to expect sporting stars to be paragons, or even repositories, of virtue? After all, those of us who rejoice in Rooney's status as a rare example of a dying breed, the footballer who learnt to express himself with his feet on terraced inner-city streets, should accept that it was on those same streets where he learnt to express himself with his mouth and his fists.

Consider, similarly, three of the greatest British post-war talents in sports away from football: Ian Botham, Nick Faldo and Tim Henman. Botham loomed as large off the cricket field as he did on it, yet he was castigated for the former and lionised for the latter. Faldo, by contrast, was moody and introspective and the press hated him for it, yet his self-absorption and tunnel-vision won him six major championships. Henman, meanwhile, is considered plain boring, yet if he were less boring he might not have worked at becoming what he still is, one of the finest serve-volleyers in men's tennis.

To get back to Rooney, it is no coincidence that the only two British footballers in the past 40 years with talent as bountiful as his were Paul Gascoigne and George Best. Both are alcoholics, one vice that Rooney has not yet been accused of, and both have been accused of wife-beating.

But whatever it is in their make-up that makes them addictive, self-destructive personalities, is indivisible from whatever it was that touched them with sporting genius. Neither of them could ever, by the ESFA's lights, be considered role models, yet every kid in every playground wanted to be like them. So it is with Rooney, and no amount of Coca-Cola-sweet sanctimony will change that.

Of course, it could be pointed out that there have been plenty of hugely influential English footballers - among them Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker - whose behaviour off the field of play has never drawn so much as a tut of public disapproval.

On the other hand, the ultimate English football hero - 1966 World Cup winning-captain Bobby Moore - was known to turn up for morning training at West Ham straight from a long night on the razzle. Would even he be deemed an unsuitable role model today? I suspect so.

Some say sport is diminished by the behaviour of Rooney and his ilk. I say that sport is diminished by our unrealistic expectations of how young men, made richer than Croesus before they are even out of their teens, should behave. Rooney should not have been prevented from attending this forthcoming under-13s football match. On the contrary, he should have been given a hero's welcome, and a chance to show he is capable of contributing something to a society that seems to want to accept him only on its own warped terms.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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