Why every female athlete is under pressure to be a role model


The definition of a role model is: “a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.”

By default, all female athletes and women in sport fall into this category whether they want to or not.

They are heralded as inspirations for future generations and while that is all well and good when they are winning in their respective sports and everything is going to plan, it can have the opposite effect when the winning streak wanes.

Being appointed as the women who so many others look up to is no mean feat. Take World Cup winner Marlie Packer.

The England and Saracens women’s flanker was found guilty of drink-driving last year, for the second time, and was given a £461 fine, ordered to pay £131 in court costs and received a 17-month driving ban after admitting the offence at Wimbledon Magistrates Court in November.

This came 12 years after her first drink-driving offence in 2007 when she failed to stop after a crash. As a result of her misdemeanour, Packer thought she would not be selected for the England squad, but it was not the case.

She spoke to the Rugby Players’ Association, Saracens and England before informing England Rugby’s head of women’s performance Nicky Ponsford, who advised her to tell England coach Simon Middleton.

Since the offence Packer has shown remorse, attended an educational course for her transgression and hopes that other people are able to learn from her mistakes.

Commendably, she has always been open and honest about her drink-driving charges and admitted full responsibility but it could be argued that while she is considered a role model for her sporting achievements, she has let down supporters and those who looked up to her.

Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Overview

Marlie Packer won the Women’s Rugby World Cup with England in 2014. Photo: Women’s Rugby World Cup website

The problem with role models is that they are expected to be perfect and flawless when the rest of us are not.

Mistakes are part of life however learning from them shows maturity which should be commended, instead, theirs are magnified and made much worse when they are in the public eye and in today’s social media era of snap judgements and blame culture their mistakes are dissected by members of the public.

Sian Massey-Ellis is an assistant referee in the Premier League and English Football League as well as being a referee in the Women’s Super League. The 33-year-old from Coventry said:

“I don’t like to call myself a role model but if one person picks up a whistle because they’ve seen me on the field, then I’ve done my job.”

When the Premier League’s top referees and assistants meet at St George’s Park for a training camp Massey-Ellis is the only female in a group of 45, making her a role model by default regardless of the fact that she doesn’t like to call herself one.

Scotland international and Chelsea forward Erin Cuthbert had her say on the matter when talking to BBC Scotland:

“All 23 of us are now role models.

“I realise the responsibility that we’ve got for little kids growing up now. They look up to us. We need to continue our success on the pitch.

“I was a fan, I used to go to all the games. I used to beg my dad to go out of work to take me and however far it was – hours away – I’d still be there. It’s the greatest honour to now put on that shirt.”

Cuthbert is the youngest member of the Scotland squad but clearly believes that, along with her 22 team-mates, she is a role model for younger generations. Scotland are now under pressure to perform at the Women’s World Cup.

This is the second successive major tournament that the Scots have reached and they will be expected to progress from the group stages which they failed to do at the Women’s Euros. Shelley Kerr’s side are in Group D alongside fierce rivals England, Argentina and Japan.

But will Cuthbert and her team-mates still want to be considered role models if Scotland are thrashed 6-0 by England in a repeat of the 2017 Euros group match? Only time will tell.

The pressure for female athletes and women in sport to be role models often stems from the fact that they may be the first women to reach a certain milestone in a long time or indeed ever.

England Women’s netball team won a Commonwealth Games gold medal for the first time in their history when they beat world number one team Australia in 2018.

England celebrate netball victory

England netball players celebrate after winning a historic gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

When the Lionesses finished third in the 2015 World Cup, it was the highest finish achieved by an England side of either gender since the men won the tournament in 1966 and also the first time, they had beaten Germany in 21 attempts.

England Women won the Rugby World Cup in 2014, with victory against Canada, for the first time since 1994 after losing 2002, 2006 and 2010 finals.

These victories automatically make them role models. Some rise to the pressure and others fall by the wayside. It is vital to remember that these women are ordinary people with exceptional talents. They should be admired and respected for their achievements but that doesn’t mean they have to be role models as a result.


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