Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?: Athletes no longer considered a good role model for children

One terrific part about the NBC/WSJ survey is the opportunity to compare attitudes over a long time horizon. We recently repeated a simple question that was asked roughly thirty years ago: “Do you believe athletes are good role models for children?”

In 1982, there was essential public consensus, 75% said “yes” that athletes were a good role model, with only 19% disagreeing.

Today, the results are starkly different: only 42% of Americans said “yes,” while a plurality (48%) said “no.”

The results should not surprise, at a time when:

  • Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour de France trophies
  • Tiger Woods’ complicated personal life
  • Steroids in baseball
  • What seems like a weekly occurrence of DUIs or other reports of misbehavior among our best known athletes.

This is still a profound difference over a  generation.

While awaiting the data we asked our staff to bet on who would be more likely to say no, athletes are not good role models — moms or dads?

We see a lot of data — and almost always based on that experience have a very good feel for public opinion.

But, as I joke with clients, there is a reason we actually interview, in this case 1000 Americans, rather than simply asking us to guess the results.

Going into the poll, it was our assumption that America’s moms would be more likely to say athletes are not good role models.

Not so.

A majority of dads with a child under 18 say athletes are not a good role model (40% yes, 51% no), while a plurality of moms say they are (48% yes, 39% no).

This gender difference though extends beyond moms and dads, as overall, a majority of men interviewed said athletes are not good role models (40% yes, 53% no), while women are divided on this question (44% yes, 44% no).

There is a sharp generational break in the data — with younger respondents being much more likely to see athletes as role models than their older counterparts

Athletes Good Role Models for Children
Age Yes No Diff
18-34 54% 37% +17%
35-49 42% 47% -5%
50-64 35% 59% -24%
65+ 35% 50% -15%

The other major cut in this data is by education, with Americans with the highest levels of formal education the most likely to see athletes as not being good role models for children.

Athletes Good Role Models for Children
Education Yes No Diff
HS or less 48% 41% +7%
Some Coll 44% 46% -2%
Coll Grad 38% 53% -15%
Post Grad 33% 58% -25%

Only 40% of White respondents see athletes as good role models, while 50% of Latinos say athletes are good role models for children. African American’s are evenly divided (46% yes, good role models, 45% no).

In my generation, the lyrics of the Paul Simon song … “where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you” are well known.

Simon wrote those lyrics years before almost three out of four Americans still saw athletes as role models for children — imagine what he would write now, with today’s data!

Public Opinion Strategies