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Matt Beardmore

Matt Beardmore

Is it Safe to Worship Athletes?

It seems harmless, but hero worship may have some negative long-term impacts.

I had some rare free time the other day, so I decided to fire up YouTube and pull up some Michael Jordan videos. It had been a while since I’d watched No. 23 take off from the foul line in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest to beat Dominique Wilkins or hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs or sink the game-winning shot over Bryon Russell in the 1998 NBA Finals.

I must have spent a good hour in front of my laptop that night watching 30 or 40 clips. It scares me to think about how much time I would have been online watching Jordan videos as a kid had the Internet been around. Instead, I spent countless hours of my childhood transforming my bedroom into a Michael Jordan shrine. Anything MJ-related, I had to have it. Photos, jerseys, posters, newspaper and magazine articles covered nearly every square inch of all four walls and the bedroom ceiling. Looking back, I might have taken this hero worship thing a little too far, but it wasn’t like I was the only kid in the ‘90s who had a passion for everything Jordan and tried to imitate everything he did on the court. It was harmless.

Or was it?

I never really put much thought into the potentially negative psychological consequences of hero worship until I read an article by Dr. Michael Hyman, Distinguished Achievement Professor of Marketing at New Mexico State University, and Dr. Jeremy J. Sierra, Associate Professor of Marketing at Texas State University-San Marcos, called “Idolizing sport celebrities: A gateway to psychopathology?” What Hyman and Sierra wrote was surprising to me, citing numerous studies including one that suggested that fans’ hero/celebrity worship can be unhealthy and “can damage fans’ psychological and emotional well-being” (Maltby, 2004).

I can relate (I still remember Jordan's birthday every Feb. 17th. Sad, I know.) to how worshiping an athlete could lead to these “non-reciprocated relationships in which one person is densely knowledgeable about another,” but I always thought – maybe naively – that adolescents grow out of these parasocial relationships and move on with their lives and into healthier relationships. I had to find out more so I called Dr. Hyman.

“Hero worship (among adolescents) seems like an innocuous act, but there is definitely a dark side,” he told me, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if “2 percent of the U.S. population had a serious problem with some type of hero worship."

Hyman and Sierra discussed how fans that are “exposed to celebrities via mass media may descend mentally from the genuine social world to a world of artificial experience,” and they cited research that argued that “high-level celebrity worship can lead to anxiety, depression, poor mental health, and negative affect; even low-level celebrity worship can lead to social dysfunction and depression (Maltby et al., 2004), and that “Celebrity worship hinders self-understanding and interpersonal relations, while creating impressions of foolishness, irresponsibility, and submissiveness” (McCutcheon & Maltby, 2002).

If all of this is true, and hero worship is truly causing people to lose their own identity, this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. So what’s the solution? Especially since leagues are going to continue marketing their sports with their star athletes because players are far more marketable than the league itself. And kids are going to keep idolizing their favorite sports stars, because, well, that's just what kids do.

Hyman and Sierra – in a truly anti-marketing position – made a bold suggestion: “Socially responsible sport organizations should discourage adolescents’ star player idolatry—a likely precursor of adults’ sport celebrity worship—despite the resulting temporary economic turmoil and resistance from entrenched beneficiaries.”

I like the thought, but social responsibility trumping dollars doesn’t sound like something the world of professional sports will start embracing any time soon - or ever. And Dr. Hyman admits he doesn’t expect this to happen, either, telling me, “It’s too much of a risk.”

But what isn’t a risk is bringing this issue to light, Dr. Hyman said.

“It would be one thing if team owners and studio executives were aware of this (impact of hero worship on adolescents) and chose to ignore it – I just think they are oblivious to it.

“Shining some light on this and alerting people of this will hopefully help.”

I hope he's right.


About the Author

Matt Beardmore

Matt Beardmore is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger.