Image: The Rose Garden during a Portland Trail Blazers NBA basketball game / Cacophony / Wikimedia Commons
It’s getting harder to imagine by the day, but there was a time in my life when I was a little boy (or at least that’s how I identified). And like a lot of little boys (or people who identify as such), I had a number of heroes I looked up to.
Granted, a fair few of my idols were imaginary (Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Frodo Baggins, et cetera), but several of them were real people. My biggest heroes were probably the players of the Portland Trail Blazers, the local NBA basketball team my father and I used to go see play at the (as it was known then) Rose Garden several times a year. In my young eyes, the players were like gods; they could do no wrong, even if they lost in the first round of the playoffs pretty much every year.
Yet as much as I idolised them, there was also a serious problem. You see, the Trail Blazers were also nicknamed the “Jail Blazers” by local and national media for a reason. Whether it was Damon Stoudamire being arrested multiple times for marijuana possession, Ruben Patterson allegedly attempting to sexually assault a woman, Shawn Kemp having a well-publicised cocaine and alcohol addiction, Zach Randolph breaking the eye socket of another player in a fight in practice, Qyntel Woods pleading guilty to an animal abuse charge, Rasheed Wallace threatening a referee, or Sebastian Telfair bringing a loaded gun onto an airplane (claiming afterwards that it was his girlfriend’s), the reality was the players were far from saints. Yet despite their many, many transgressions, I still looked up to them, and many other people – particularly young boys – did too.
While my childhood idolising of basketball stars happened long ago, it remains a cultural issue today, including right here in Aotearoa.
Granted, the All Blacks haven’t earned a jail-related nickname, but some of their players (and former players) have been involved in a number of incidents that have thrown a shadow over the game. The Chiefs recently hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons and, even more disturbingly, many people defended their actions. And what about the cricket player Scott Kuggeleijn, who was found not guilty of sexual assault during his second trial (the first resulting in a mistrial) and recently called up to the Black Caps? And those are just sporting figures – add the musicians, actors, comedians and other entertainers a lot of young boys idolise, and you get a toxic stew of famous people setting bad examples.
Another way to phrase that phenomenon: toxic masculinity.
It’s been said countless times before, but it’s worth repeating: young people – including young boys – can be impressionable. This is especially problematic when it comes to misogyny and how women are treated: when young boys hear about people like Bill Cosby or Donald Trump allegedly abusing women, see film characters like James Bond using women only as a means to an end, or listen to misogynistic music by artists that talk about treating women like objects, they start to think such behaviour is OK.
News flash: it’s not.
I was fortunate that my parents and I were able to have conversations about why the Blazers players’ behaviour was never, under any circumstances, something to emulate. Unfortunately, the reality is that many young people do not get to have those conversations.
People who know they’re idolised – or are in a position from which they could expect to be idolised – could also play a big part in setting positive examples. When Jono Pryor (of Jono and Ben) broke down during a live broadcast in March while discussing a close friend who had died after a struggle with mental illness, it marked an important moment not only in talking about mental health, but also in demonstrating that there’s no shame in men showing emotion. The hyper-masculine, “she’ll be right” culture which remains strong throughout New Zealand – and is an ideal many young men strive towards – can actually be very harmful, but people like Jono can set a positive example of healthy masculinity that others would do well to emulate.
Another example is a new initiative by the NBA, WNBA and Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org. Using the hashtag #LeanInTogether, the public awareness campaign aimed specifically at young men features three of the NBA’s biggest stars discussing the importance of gender equality, inspiring women in their lives, and why it’s important to treat women and everyone with respect. The hope, of course, is that young men will see their heroes treating women with respect and follow suit.
When it comes to the types of people many young boys and men idolise, it’s also important to remember this: a lot of them are young men themselves. They may by making hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars playing a sport or appearing in front of a camera, but that doesn’t – unfortunately – automatically give a 19-year-old male the maturity an older person might have. Essentially, what we’re dealing with is a vicious cycle of kids idolising other kids.
Thankfully, the cycle can be broken by simply having conversations about why we idolise such people, and pointing young people in the direction of healthier role models. Why can’t young men idolise amazing women like Valerie Adams or Dr Michelle ‘Nanogirl’ Dickinson? Or people like Jono Pryor?
We need to be very careful about just who we put on a pedestal. Not all idols are worthy of the title.