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The Johnson effect: do we expect too much from our sportsmen and women as role models?

The thorny issue of the responsibility of fame has reared its ugly head again, in my mind, with the news that former Sunderland footballer, Adam Johnson, jailed last year for 6 years for sexual activity with a child, has lost his appeal against his conviction. His second appeal no less. At the time of his sentencing, Oliver Brown, writing in the Telegraph, described Johnson as “a monster of football’s own making.” It is hard to make a compelling argument against this, and I wouldn’t want to defend a man whose actions, resulting from boredom apparently, are abhorrent. The article is excellent, drawing the key ingredients in this particular case, money, education and a complete lack of any social responsibility, into a recipe for disaster garnished with a suggestion that we should regard Adam Johnson as “an emblem of [football’s] broken soul”. Well said!

But is this the end of the logical thought process here? Football is just big business, footballers are employees of the biggest “multi-national corporation” in the world, and just as in life, there are some colleagues, some members of society whose opinions, behaviour and moral compass are unacceptable. Is it football’s fault that Johnson committed his crime? Does football have a broken soul? Is football not just reflective of the society that we are all shaping?

We have a thirst for sordid details in HD. Society wants to see into the inner world of those who have, living vicariously through the material world of celebrity rather than studying our heroes, those whose achievements, beliefs and traits we aspire to emulate. We have become a nation of “Goggleboxers” who resist the desire to condemn conduct and celebrate the good.

In 1988, Ben Johnson was stripped of his Gold medal at the Seoul Olympic Games for having used a banned substance to enhance his own performance. It certainly did, he broke the then world record and crossed the finish line like a snorting bull to claim gold in 9.79 seconds. Three days later, after the Olympic Doping Control Center found that Johnson’s blood and urine samples contained the banned substance, stanozolol, he was stripped of his title and world record.

He broke the rules, was punished and justice was done. But he had broken the sacred trust placed in him, in the marquee event of the ultimate sporting competition. He had cheated his way to becoming the fastest man in the world, to standing atop the podium while we all applauded and sang the Canadian national anthem. The world felt wronged and there was understandable moral outrage.

While we can all read, share and comment about the behaviour of Adam Johnson & Ben Johnson, for incomparable crimes – I am not trying to equate their actions – it is too easy to forget the example set by others. The list of Johnson’s whose behaviour is to be celebrated far outweighs the actions of a few: Michael Johnson, the American athlete whose performances and records place him alongside Usain Bolt at the top of the sprinting hall of fame; Magic Johnson, point guard for the LA Lakers, a basketball player who is one of only seven players in history to win an NCAA Championship, an NBA Championship, and an Olympic Gold Medal. He retired in 1991 after contracting HIV and has campaigned relentlessly for awareness of the disease; Mitchell Johnson, former Australian fast bowler, was the ICC’s “Cricketer of the Year” in 2009 and 2014; Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, widely considered as one of the all-time greatest professional wrestlers by fans and WWE competitors alike. In 2006, Johnson founded the Dwayne Johnson Rock Foundation, a charity working with at-risk and terminally ill children; 16 years old American gymnast, Shawn Johnson, who won a gold medal for the balance beam at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The irony of beginning with Adam Johnson and ending with Shawn Johnson is not lost on me.

So do we expect too much from our sportsmen and women? Are they not just people, whose talent is either given or learned, certainly honed, who, because of their ability, have been thrust into the murky world of celebrity? They did not want the attention, the press, they did not ask for millions of people to place them on a pedestal and worship them. They just wanted to be the best they could be. Why do we expect them to be squeaky clean? If we turned the floodlights on the stands, would we not find the same inadequacies amongst our own unheralded neighbours? What help or education are they given to enable them to act as we expect them to act? Or do we really want all of our stars to undergo a removal of their frontal lobe so that they are incapable of character?

It is entirely right that a person, irrespective of their job, wealth or standing should be prosecuted for sexual activity with a child. As a society, we should stand united to denounce such behaviour. As a community, Sunderland Football Club should still be shouting from the rooftops about the dangers that teenagers face in modern society.

But we should be very wary about making this a problem with football. This is a problem with society.

We fixate on the negative, we write endless column inches detailing salacious stories, all of which is inhaled by society. Let’s stop! Let’s denounce Adam Johnson for having abused the absolute responsibility of adults to protect children. Let’s criticise drug cheats for losing their minds and moral compass. But let’s celebrate the good even more. Let’s listen to Michael Johnson, let’s give Magic Johnson the platform to spread his message. The successful Johnson’s can teach us more than the criminals, and as a society we should spend more time celebrating them as human beings than we should asking questions about why one man’s actions are reflective of an institutional problem.


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