Many social critics have suggested that our heavily mediated sports heroes no longer embody the ideal for adoring adolescents. This study attempts to better understand how American adolescents view these star athletes through statistical comparisons between the images of sports heroes and real and ideal self-concepts. Distances between self-concept and images of sports heroes suggest that sports heroes still embody the ideal in most areas, although not in academics and behavioral conduct.
Throughout American history, the sports hero has been a frequently discussed, widely adored, and, particularly in recent years, heavily criticized component of society. Thanks to the invasive nature of modern media, American adolescents are now privileged to an unprecedented amount of information about their favorite star athletes. In addition to spectacular play and positive behaviors, sports fans also learn of various negative characteristics of these stars. Because of this, it has been assumed by many cultural critics that sports heroes no longer epitomize the American ideal as they did for previous generations.
Given the potential influence of today’s sports heroes, particularly with adolescents who admire these glamorized sports stars, gaining a clearer understanding of this construct is an important area of study. Therefore, this research project will address the following research questions:
- How do American adolescents view their mediated sports heroes?
- Do American adolescents view their sports heroes as ideal in certain areas, such as athleticism, and less ideal in others?
The Sports Hero
Sports has become a popular and vital area in which Americans now find their heroes, a trend that has been propelled through media since before the turn of the 20th century (“Heroes of”, 1990; Ryan, 1995; Nixon, 1984; Oriard, 1982; Simons, 1997; “Role models”, 1989; Andrews & Jackson, 2001; Windfield, 2003). One reason for this is that sports remains one area where true greatness and superior beauty can be found in a complex society (Goodman, 1993). A star athlete, unlike other mediated figures, will have rare moments when they appear to surpass mortal limitations through spectacular, seemingly impossible athletic feats (Nixon, 1984; Oriard, 1982).
The rapid growth of sports television in America has continuously increased emphasis on the American sports hero (McPherson, 1989; Davies, 1994; Harris, 1994; Harris, 1994b; Nixon, 1984; Katz, 1996). In addition to publicizing the modern sports hero, sports programs are presented to emphasize heroic actions, emotions, and personalities of star athletes, creating a strong and unique relationship between viewers and individual star athletes. (Kinkema & Harris, 1992; Coakley, 1994; Hargreaves, 1986; Hilliard, 1984; Sabo & Jensen, 1992). Americans now know more about popular sports figures than ever before, including both their on-the-field and off-the-field activities. The popular sports hero has been demystified, and fans now see greatness as well as imperfection, ranging from spousal abuse to drug use to gambling on sports (Hargreaves, 1986; Harris, 1994a; Hoagland, 1974; Coakley, 1994; McPherson et al., 1989; Messner & Solomon, 1994; Long, 1991; Nack & Munson, 1995; Starr & Samuels, 1997; Wilson & Sparks, 1996).
Despite these imperfections, many theorists still believe the modern, mass-mediated sports figure can be a hero. They have identified several characteristics that are commonly associated with this modern sports hero, including supreme athleticism on the field or court, high winning percentages, the potential to win championships, statistical records, greatness throughout a career, flair and charisma, sportsmanship, and confidence in one’s abilities (Nixon, 1984; Harris, 1994a; Harris, 1994b; Crepeau, 1985; Goodman, 1993; Smith, 1973; Porter, 1983; Starr & Samuels, 1997). Financial success and lucrative commercial endorsement deals are commonly identified qualities of the sports hero, particularly to adolescent boys who aspire to reach similar financial heights through professional athletics (“Michael Jordan’s”, 1991; Weisman, 1993; McDonald & Andrews, 2001; Wilson & Sparks, 1996; Simons, 1997). Theorists also have identified several non-performance-related characteristics of the modern hero, including civic and community involvement, academic accomplishment, strong family ties, and avoiding illegal and immoral behaviors (Walden, 1986; Smith, 1973; Harris, 1994a; Harris, 1994b; Hoagland, 1974; Nixon, 1984; Coakley, 1994).
Off-the-court actions of sports stars may have some impact on heroic classification, but on-the-court excellence has been identified as more instrumental. Nixon explained this, writing, “Wayward athletes may be excused by fans. . . in their lifestyle off the field as long as they work hard and produce on the field and. . . their behavior on or off the field does not depart too much from conventional standards” (1984, p. 174). Additionally, Archetti (2001) noted that sporting heroes can embody different qualities based on the contexts of their accomplishments. Therefore, the individualization of heroes is critical in understanding this social construct.
This study does not further attempt to summarize the universal qualities of the American sports hero, as individuals generally choose their own heroes based on personal needs and wants. This study examines whether the modern American sports hero is still viewed by individual American adolescents as meeting their personal ideal, or, as has been suggested by many, if sports heroes no longer meet this criteria. One potential means of addressing such individual characteristics and values of a sports hero to American adolescents in a standardized and measurable method is to examine self-concept, a foundation for this study.
Although self-concept has been defined with several slight variations, for this study, this construct will be defined as “myself as I see myself” (Loundon & Bitta, 1979, p. 373; Dolich, 1969; Landon, 1974; Delozier & Tillman, 1972).
Two constructs of self-concept are used in this study, as follows:
- The Real Self: An individual’s perception of how he/she actually is (Dolich,
1969; Birdwell, 1964; Ross, 1971; Runyon, 1977; Loundon & Bitta, 1979).
- The Ideal Self: An individual’s perception of how he/she would like to be
(Delozier & Tillman, 1972; Loundon & Bitta, 1979; Runyon, 1977; Baughman & Welsh, 1962; Ross, 1971).
The construct “self-concept,” whether real or ideal, includes measures of several distinct domains. Susan Harter’s Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents, a self-concept measure for adolescents, assesses the following eight domains: scholastic competence, social acceptance, athletic competence, physical appearance, job competence, romantic appeal, behavioral conduct, and close friendship (Harter, 1988). These domains are used as the subscales of self-concept for this research.
The use of domains for research on self-concept and sports heroes is crucial because star athletes can display contradictory behaviors in different areas of their life (Starr & Samuels, 1997; Farrey, 1997; Malone, 1993; King, 2005). While no known studies have examined self-concept in reference to the selection of a sports hero, several studies have found consumers to choose products consistent with their self-concepts (Landon, 1974; Sirgy, 1983; Loundon & Bitta, 1979; Runyon, 1977; Hattie, 1992; Delozier & Tillman, 1972; Birdwell, 1964; Ross, 1971; Felker, 1974; Dolich, 1969; Krech et al., 1962). Loundon and Bitta (1979) explained, “Products and brands are considered as objects that consumers purchase either to maintain or to enhance their self-images. The choice of which brand to buy depends on how similar (or consistent) the consumer perceives the brand to be with his or her self-image” (p. 376).
Self-Concept and Mass Media Figures
Little research has addressed the selection of mass media figures with respect to self-concept or other related constructs. Caughley (1984) addressed the perceived relationship between a viewer and an admired media figure, writing, “The appeal is often complex, but the admired figure is typically felt to have qualities that the person senses in himself but desires to develop further. The admired figure represents an ideal self-image” (p. 54). Several authors have suggested that fans may choose favorite sports figures based on their perceived similarities between themselves and the athlete (Wilson & Sparks, 1996; Cole, 1996; Kellner, 1996; Harris, 1994a; Simons, 1997; “Role models”, 1989; Browne et al, 2003).
From the review of literature, the following research hypothesis predicts the place of mediated sports heroes in relation to adolescent self-concept.
Adolescents choose mediated sports heroes that are closer to their ideal self-concept than to their real self-concept in various domains. This is particularly true for domains that are integral to athletic excellence. Therefore, American mediated sports heroes still epitomize the ideal more than the real self.
Subjects for Study
Subjects for this study were male high school students in grades nine and ten, approximately aged 14-16. This gender restriction prevents gender from being a confounding variable in data analysis. Additionally, researchers have suggested that male adolescents are more likely to look to mass media figures, including athletic heroes, as role models than are their female counterparts (McEvoy & Erikson, 1981).
Of the 172 valid subjects used for data analysis in this study, 120 subjects were students in a suburban private school, all participants in school athletics. The students from this school were predominantly white, with a small percentage of minorities (Asian, Hispanic, African-American). The remaining 52 subjects were participants in a sports tournament in Houston run through a local community center. These subjects, of the same grade and age parameters as the first 120 subjects, also were participants in school athletics. These subjects share similar demographics traits with the first 120 students, and the data collected from the two groups were virtually identical.
One criticism of this study may be that the students do not represent a diverse sample, decreasing external validity. However, like most studies, this study will not claim to be generalizable to all scenarios, nor is it able to address issues of race, socioeconomic status, and family/home environment.
For this study, the image of the sports hero is compared to both one’s ideal image of one’s self, measured as ideal self-concept, and one’s real image of one’s self, or real self-concept. This will be measured across eight domains of self-concept. Therefore, three separate measures must be made. First, subjects must rate their own real self-concept (who I am). Second, subject must rate their ideal self-concept (who I want to be). Finally, subjects must rate the image of their own individually selected sports hero.
The proximity between the image of the sports hero and both the real and ideal self-concepts will be calculated, across all domains, and these distances will be examined. Statistical analysis of these distances will determine whether the image of the sports hero is closer to the ideal or to the real self.
For the measurement of real self-concept, the Adolescent Self-Perception Profile, created by Susan Harter (1988), was used. Five questions address each domain of self-concept (40 questions overall). The reliability of Harter’s test of self-concept has been determined through repeated use and examination of this instrument.
Altered versions of Harter’s test were also used to measure ideal self-concept and perceived image of the sports hero. To measure ideal self-concept, the phrase “how I am” was replaced with “how I would like to be.” Similarly, to measure the image of the sports hero, “who I am” was replaced with “what my sports hero is like.” Such a procedure for altering an existing test in this manner is derived from marketing studies that examine self-concept, product image, and purchase intentions (Dolich, 1969; Delozier & Tillman, 1972; Ross, 1971; Landon, 1974).
Tests were administered to small groups of approximately 10-20 students for each session. After an instructional session, subjects were instructed to pick the one athlete they most considered to be their sports hero. The athlete must be or must have been covered heavily by mass media, and the athlete could not be a personal acquaintance of the subject. Subjects were then instructed to use their individual choice of sports hero as replacement for the generic “sports hero” of the questionnaires.
The three tests were given (real self-concept, ideal self-concept, and image of the sports hero) using one questionnaire and one answer packet, in which students would place their answers for each question of real self-concept next to the counterpart answers for the same question on each of the other two constructs (ideal self, sport hero). The sequence of test administration was identical for all subjects.
The following analysis was completed with the collected data for this study.
Self-Concept, Image of the Sports Hero, and Distance Scores
For each of the three constructs (real self-concept, ideal self-concept, and image of the sports hero), a mean score was calculated in each of the eight domains of self-concept. Next, distance scores were calculated to measure the distance between self-concept, both real and ideal, and the image of the sports hero. These distance scores indicate the similarity between self-concept (real and ideal) and the image of the sports hero. These two separate sets of distance scores were calculated for each of the eight domains. The distance scores between real self-concept and the image of the sports hero (for all eight domains) are referred to as “real distance scores,” while the distance scores between ideal self-concept and the image of the sports hero are referred to as “ideal distance scores.”
The difference squared model, which squares the difference between each paired set of questions and sums these differences, has been used to measure distance scores (Sirgy, 1983; Osgood et al., 1957). The formula is represented as follows:
Distance (in each domain) = (Q1, Sp Hero – Q1, SC)2 + (Q2, Sp hero – Q2, SC)2 + (Q3, Sp hero – Q3, SC)2 + (Q4, Sp hero – Q4, SC)2 + (Q5, Sp hero – Q5, SC)2.
Qn, Sp Hero = Question n from the test of the image of the sports hero.
Qn, SC = Question n from the test of self-concept.
The lower the distance score for each domain, the closer the particular domain of self-concept is to the image of the sports hero in that domain.
To determine whether the image of the sports hero fell closer to the ideal self than the real self, t-tests were used to look for a significant difference between ideal distance scores and real distance scores in each of the eight domains. These t-tests would determine whether the sports hero fell significantly closer to the ideal self than the real self in each of the eight domains, as hypothesized in this study.
Chosen Sports Heroes
Ninety-nine different athletes were chosen as sports heroes for the 172 subjects, demonstrating a diversity of heroes. Broken down by sport, baseball players were chosen by the largest number of subjects (57), followed by basketball (43) and football (21). Because many of the subjects for this study were participants in a baseball tournament, the large number of subjects selecting baseball players is not surprising. Only one of the 172 male subjects chose a female sports hero, stressing both the importance of perceived similarity and of media coverage in the selection of a sports hero.
The sheer number of different athletes chosen (99) is notable. This suggests a large number of available sports heroes for adolescents and refutes the idea that only a small group of popular athletes are chosen as heroes. This also suggests that adolescents still play an active part in the selection of their sports heroes.
Self-Concept and Image of the Sports Hero
The results for the tests of self-concept, both real and ideal, are detailed in Tables 1 and 2. T-Tests confirmed a significant difference between real and ideal self-concept in each domain.
The results for the tests of the image of the sports hero are detailed in Table 3. For the image of the sports hero, the athletic domain had the highest mean score, followed by job competence, clearly also related to athletics. As with both types of self-concept, the behavior domain received the lowest mean score. Such results suggest a view of sports heroes which place a premium on supreme athletic competence, yet allow for lower levels of competence in non-athletic areas, particularly in the ability to behave in the right way.
The image of the sports hero fell in-between the real and ideal self-concepts for seven of the eight domains. The only domain for which this was not true was the behavior domain, where the mean score of the sports hero fell below both the ideal and the real self-concepts. Therefore, these subjects felt their sports hero typically falls somewhere between who they are and who they would like to be for all areas except for the behavioral domain. Subsequent analysis will determine whether the hero is significantly closer to the ideal self than the real self, as hypothesized.
The 16 distance scores (eight real and eight ideal) are reported in Table 4. The lower the distance score for each domain, the closer the particular domain of self-concept is to the image of the sports hero in that domain.
Of the 16 distance scores, the six domain scores with the lowest mean scores were ideal distance scores. Additionally, eight of the ten distance scores with the highest mean scores were real distance scores, the exception being Ideal Scholastic Distance, which had the highest mean score of all. In all but one domain, Scholastic Achievement, the ideal distance score was smaller than the real distance score, meaning the sports hero was closer to the ideal self than the real self for that domain. Cronbach’s Alpha coefficients of reliability ranged from .5263 for Real Job Distance to .7655 for Real Friend Distance and from .5753 for Ideal Athletic Distance to .7320 for Ideal Friend Distance. This and average item-to-total correlations greater than .3 except for Real Job Distance (.2966) indicate that these 16 distance scores were reliable measures of the distance between self-concept and the image of the sports hero.
Comparison of Real Distance Scores to Ideal Distance Scores
The hypothesis predicted that the ideal self-concept would be closer than the real self-concept to the image of the sports hero, or that these subjects would perceive their heroes as closer to their ideal than their real self. T-Tests were done with distance scores for each of the eight domains. The results are detailed Table 5.
The hypothesis was supported for six of the eight domains of self-concept. These subjects perceived their sports heroes as closer to their ideal self than their real self in the following six domains: athletic competence, close friendship, job competence, physical appearance, romantic appeal, and social acceptance. The only two domains for which this is not true are the behavior domain and the scholastic domain. In fact, the scholastic domain is the only one of the eight domains where the image of the sports hero is actually closer to the real self-concept than the ideal self-concept, reflecting both a high ideal academic self-concept and a correspondingly low image of the sports hero’s competence in academic areas. For six of the areas of self-concept, however, it can be stated that the sports hero more closely approximates the ideal self, or who these subjects want to be, than the real self, or who these subjects currently perceive themselves to be.
In contrast to the opinions of many cultural theorists, the results from this research indicate that the sports hero does approach our ideal in most areas. Obviously, this might be expected for areas such as athletic competence, job competence, and physical appearance. The subjects in this study also viewed their sports heroes as closer to their ideal self in areas of romantic appeal, friendship, and social acceptance. Therefore, the modern American mediated sports hero, at least from the perspective of these adolescents, approaches the ideal in several areas that are not athletic or physical.
Conversely, in the domains of scholastic competence and behavioral conduct, these adolescents did not significantly find their sports heroes to approximate their ideal self more than their real self. Media coverage of the frequent negative behaviors of star athletes has likely contributed to this result. Further, with an increasing number of star athletes leaving school early and frequent reports of academic scandal involving athletes, adolescents may be increasingly less likely to view their sports heroes as ideal scholars who exhibit ideal behavior.
From these results, several general conclusions can be made. First, these adolescents view the mediated sports hero not a singular construct, but rather a complex entity. Athletes who are stars on the court yet less noteworthy off it can still be viewed as heroic, as fans seem capable of discerning the complexity and incongruity of their characters. Second, individuals have their own individual heroic choices and their own perspectives on what is truly ideal. Because of this, it is less important to examine whether the mediated sports hero measures up to a singular, societal measure of the ideal than it is to examine how individual sports heroes measure up to individual perceptions of the ideal. In a fragmented society with endless media outlets, this design allows for a more accurate assessment of the true social position of this figure.
Third, because mediated sports heroes do not measure up to the ideal in the scholastic and behavioral domains, questions should be raised over the possible influence of American sports heroes. Given the potential for these heroes to serve as role models for adolescents, it would be hoped that sports heroes would serve as ideal role models in these critical areas. While it is expected that the hero would serve as an ideal model in athletic and social areas, it is the scholastic and behavioral domains that provide a critical need for superior role models. For these popular figures to fall short in these two important domains is worrisome. Future research into the area of mediated sports heroes should examine the potential role modeling influence of the modern American sports hero, particularly as it relates to the ideal and less-than-ideal components of this popular figure.
Finally, researchers should pay attention to the function of media to translate meaning about popular sports figures. Clearly, the subjects for this study developed ideas about many areas of their favorite athletes, and these ideas were largely driven by media images and messages. With the increasing availability of information about popular athletes through endless new media technologies, researchers should attempt to understand where adolescents find their information about popular athletes, the types of media they use, and the messages sent through those mediated sources.
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