When parents hear their child compared to professional athletes, they hope to hear that their child has the moves of Wayne Gretzky or the arm of Brett Favre. Parents don't really want to learn that their child has the manners of Dennis Rodman or the easygoing nature of John McEnroe. Not all comparisons to professional athletes are intended as compliments.
It is easy for kids to admire professional athletes who stand out in their sport. This admiration often takes the form of "hero worship" and gives kids someone to mimic in their path to adulthood. Just like their heroes, most kids can easily see themselves making the winning score or receiving the praise and lifestyle that comes with success. Many parents encourage this behavior through buying jerseys and seeking autographs.
Professional sports are a form of entertainment just like television programs. Like actors and actresses, professional athletes become celebrities and gain additional exposure for the things they do away from the game - blurring the line between performance and lifestyle. Parents can't always control what kids know about their favorite players. As personal celebrity becomes intermixed with professional accomplishment, kids can begin to mimic an athlete's personal actions and mannerisms as well as an athlete's professional skill. Kids can become confused about what it is they are trying to imitate.
However, as recent news accounts only reconfirm, professional athletes do not always make the best role models. A professional player's conduct away from the game is often unknown. Most fans do not really know a player's morals, ethics, work habits and respect for teammates or for fans. Thus, most parents do not really know if they want their child to grow up mimicking the life choices of a specific professional athlete.
For kids who want heroes and parents who want role models, there can be conflict. One way around this conflict is for parents to begin distinguishing between admiration for a player's abilities and admiration for a player. For example, saying that a professional player is a great athlete is different than saying a professional player is a great person. Parents can help focus their children's attention on players whose community actions are admirable even if the player's game actions are not at the superstar level. Helping kids understand the difference between a player as a person and a player as an athlete is the key to providing the right role models to children.