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On "The Role Model Thing: Perspectives from the Women’s Game"

Andrew Guest of Pitch Invasion -- a soccer (football!) culture blog -- looks at the role model discourse in women's soccer and asks questions that definitely apply to women's sports more broadly: Is it reasonable to expect athletes to be good at things other than their sport?

The Role Model Thing: Perspectives from the Women’s Game | Pitch Invasion
The role model thing in an ideal world?

It might seem obvious to suggest that soccer players should primarily be models and reference points for their soccer abilities, but that goes against a pervasive cultural discourse. Still, in trying to systematically analyze that discourse, it strikes me that for both the players and the fans it would be useful (and maybe even liberating) to recognize and reflect on the ways the popular concept of athletes as comprehensive role models is more of a social construction than a real experience.

As often as we hear about this question, I agree with the warrant for the question and the research conducted. However, I would disagree that it's not "a real experience" for a reason stated further down in the article:

Women athletes in particular have done much to destabilize gender stereotypes, and everyone—soccer players and otherwise—can do with reminders about the importance of social responsibility.

While female athletes may not be "role models" in the colloquial sense that we think of them -- people we literally want to be exactly like -- they do often present a model for the range of things women can do and as he writes "destabilize gender stereotypes". I'm not sure it's possible to measure that impact with any kind of research and even so, the effects might not appear immediately.

But second, as related to the WNBA, what I wonder is if it's different because the league has been around longer. Maybe the league has merely brainwashed its players, but many of the players we talk to -- and college players as well -- talk about the importance of not only being a role model, but also the existence of the league as a new aspiration for them. It's probably not the central motivation to become a professional basketball player, but many of the women we've spoken to do see that as something more than peripheral to their responsibility as athletes.

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But it might be that very experience of being a self-professed "girly-girl" who wasn't all-consumed with basketball alone that will make her a model of what it means to be a female athlete.

"I think it's huge," said Clark, who has already worked with girls around Murfreesburo, Tennessee. "For girls to have that to look up to now and especially to girls that might have been in the same situation that I was - they're undersized and they're playing in a position that they're forced to play, but you gotta make the best out of your situation. And I think girls can see that and hear my story and see what I've been able to accomplish and maybe that will help them and motivate them too."

Nevertheless, I agree with his central point: advocates, fans, leagues, and media should all think about this "role model" narrative with "a bit more precision", not to mention determining how to help these leagues grow so the next generation has the opportunity to choose between ball player, role model, or both at once.