It's time to stop pretending that sportsmen are role models.

You know who you should go to hear some reasonable discussion of LGBTQI issues? Israel Folau.

He’s a rugby union star who’s been lighting up Twitter for months now with his declarations that when Jesus Christ returns, anyone same-sex attracted will be burning in a fiery pit.

You know who you should go to discuss workplace harassment?  Try the AFL team the Gold Coast Suns, who are currently being sued by one of their former players, Joel Wilkinson, over alleged racially-motivated sexual harassment. Or Fremantle coach Ross Lyon, who this week was named as the subject of a sexual misconduct claim.

You know who you should talk to for advice on how to treat women with basic respect? Well, any number of NRL players, really, from the Brisbane Broncos’ Matt Lodge, who infamously began a violent rampage through New York City with leering threats that he was going to kill a female stranger, to North Queensland cowboy Scott Bolton, who is facing charges of indecent assault over an incident in Sydney’s Bondi last Saturday night.

Sportspeople are good at playing sport. In Australia, if we are looking to them to be guiding lights on how to conduct ourselves in almost any other area, we’re looking the wrong way.

These men are not role models. They can just run fast, jump high and throw a ball with purpose.

They are athletes, not heroes.

If that seems obvious to you, consider this. Professional sportsmen are deployed into primary schools across the country every single week, wooing new generations of fans with personal appearances, branded school jerseys, signed kick-about balls and a hundred grinning selfies.

Stars are lit in the eyes of thousands of young boys – and girls, of course – every time those healthy dudes swagger into draughty school halls and settle their muscly bulk into a teeny-tiny kids’ chair.

These men are held up as heroes and ‘good blokes’ and examples of how non-academic kids can change their prospects. They are the templates on which we project learned values like mateship and teamwork and commitment and resilience.

And yet… so many let us down. Over and over and over again.

Of course, there are hundreds of examples of sportspeople who use their enormous influence for good – like former Sydney Swans Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin, who founded the Go Foundation to support young indigenous Australians through education. Or of course, cricket’s Glen McGrath, who has done everything to change the culture of cricket and charity through the McGrath Foundation, raising awareness and funds for breast cancer in memory of his wife, Jane. Or Chris Judd, the Carlton player who, along with his wife Bec, donate a portion of the sale of their Melbourne home to a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.

But still, every single Autumn as footy season rolls around, the reporting of aggressive and indecent “incidents” begins.

Of course, individual humans are flawed. No-one is perfect. Being worshiped for being aggressive on-field makes it tricky to act with humility and decency off. We’ve heard all that.


But sporting codes are billion-dollar businesses, and they can do better.

From L-R, Rugby union footballer Israel Folau, AFL's Fremantle Coach Ross Lyon and NRL North Queensland Cowboys player Scott Bolton. Image: Getty.

Last night, for example, Scott Bolton ran out to play for the Cowboys just a few kilometres from where it is alleged he indecently assaulted a woman last Saturday night. Sydney's The Daily Telegraph report that the alleged incident involved him grabbing a 49-year-old woman's genitals in a bar in Bondi. Married Bolton has given an emotional press conference about the issue, which is in the hands of police and the NRL Integrity Commission.

Bolton is, of course, innocent until proven guilty. That's exactly as it should be.

But benching him until the investigation is complete is exactly the kind of message that the National Rugby League could send to show they take assaults on women seriously.

When several convicted domestic violence offenders are running out in colours, when Matt Lodge is on one of your teams, when a weekend can barely go by without an "incident" in a club or bar around the country, perhaps it's time to take a more definitive stance.

And until then, until there's zero-tolerance to violence and assault and hate-speech and cheating, perhaps we can agree that these people are not role models, and that we should not be inviting them to be held up as heroes in front of impressionable young minds.

Because right now, they're just people who can run fast, jump high and treat the rest of us with disdain.

And that's not a lesson we're interested in passing along to the next generation.

* This story has been edited from the original to reflect timely events.