It happens that a letter in the Guardian answered this very point. It was written at the time Lawrence Dallaglio lost the captaincy of the England XV over his boasts about drugs to an undercover tabloid journalist. The letter ran:
It happens that I wrote that letter. You can still find it on the Guardian site.
Why is the horrible phrase "role model" on everyone's lips? The idea that we are all passive observers easily influenced by the celebrities we see on television is deeply patronising and backed by no research. In particular, the idea that rugby union forwards should be moral exemplars is bizarre.
Traditionally, and no doubt unfairly, they have been known for two things: being extremely stupid and drinking far too much.
We do not want role models, we want sporting heroes; and we are quite capable of choosing them for ourselves. Chief among them have always been people like Denis Compton or Ian Botham, who could go out on the town and still perform wonders the next day.
And as far as one can tell, Flintoff is not one to go out on the town during a match. In fact his dedication to fitness has produced one of the most remarkable transformations in international sport.
When he first came into the England team in 1998 he was treated by the press as a new Colin Milburn. A big fat lad who hit the ball hard. Some journalists mentioned that he used to be a sharpish bowler as a youngster, but his back could not take the strain. Today, seven years on, he is just about the best fast bowler in world cricket.
If you want a role model, I can't think of a better one. But I still prefer heroes.