By Lisa Gilmer, MD, FAAP
Hero. A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
Heroes are important. Heroes help children figure out what they might aspire to become. A child’s first hero is typically a caregiver or a teacher. Heroes then shift to celebrities and athletes due in large part to the influence of social media. When asked to choose a famous person they look up to, one study showed that up to a third of children choose athletes.
The 30-40 million youths involved in organized sports every year are a large audience for athlete role models to influence. Athletes are seen as role models because of their physical abilities and mental toughness. The thrill of winning at professional or elite levels is motivating for even the most novice competitor. Athletes are also exciting to watch but they entertain from miles away. They aren’t present to establish relationships or to interact with kids; factors the literature identify as important for true heroes to have.
This is where the Kansas City Chiefs are a bit different. Many are deeply connected to the community. They visit schools and hospitals. They shop in local stores and eat at hometown restaurants. They invite us to get to know them which is why over the weeks leading up to Super Bowl LIV, the most visible heroes in this part of the country wore football jerseys. Although the identification of athletes as heroes typically fades in adulthood, I must confess that I too got caught up in Red Fridays, often sporting my Chiefs jersey.
Two images define the pros and cons of athletes as heroes. February 2nd, the Chiefs overcame a 10 point deficit in the 4th quarter to end a fifty year Super Bowl drought. Never give up, show good sportsmanship, and win as a team. Heroes. On February 5th, the Chiefs paraded through downtown Kansas City cheered on by a crowd of almost a million. Dance in the street, take selfies with fans, and chug beers. Heroes?
Athletes are human beings capable of displaying poor judgement and when they do, it becomes headline news. Where most grownups recognize the flaws in athlete heroes, these may not be so obvious to kids. What did the tens of thousands of children who watched the parade understand about the behavior of their heroes? This is where caring adults can intervene. When a child identifies an athlete as a hero, ask them why. If their hero has behaved in a less than heroic fashion, explain that athletes, like the rest of us, make mistakes. Discuss better ways the athlete could have handled the situation. These conversations may be as important as the heroes themselves.
So who are your heroes? I suspect they see others in need and they just do what is right. No headlines. No parade. Inspirational.