Honor in Professional Sports or the Role Model Dilemma
Sports has always been a fairly big part of my life, for various reasons. Both of my brothers were fairly athletic and were involved with various baseball and basketball leagues as kids, and both took up boxing for extended periods. As a disabled person, “standard” sports weren’t really an option for me. I took karate for a while in junior high, and had participated in handicapped baseball for a few years. I enjoyed both activities at the time, but found something critical missing.
I guess I never had that competitive drive that you need to make yourself better. I think that’s why I’ve developed such an appreciation for professional sports. Rather than living vicariously through it, or feeling like I’m recapturing some lost athletic prowess or something, I respect the athleticism of pro sports as something I can’t do, even if I was able-bodied.
My first job out of college was working as a clerk for the sports department of the local paper, and I loved it. We covered mostly local high schools and the Universiry of Connecticut programs. My biggest gripe about this job had to do with the parents of athletes who would bitch and moan that we didn’t cover their kids enough and were costing their kid a future college scholarship. We did have some kids in the area who got rides from schools, but we’re talking maybe 10 total, spread between multiple sports.
The experience of dealing with kids in the formative years of their athletic careers, whatever those careers would turn out to be, made me reexamine the way we look at sports in this country, particularly at the professional level. I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but it seems that as a society we somehow expect pro ahletes to be role models. To be fair, many guys and gals in the various leagues across the country are great people and do a lot of great things with their time and money to make the areas around them better, so I’m not casting an indictment on everyone here.
I guess the disconnect comes for me when an athlete screws up, one of the first points of outrage always seems to be “Don’t they realize they are setting a bad example?” My first response is always: “A bad example for who, exactly? To their own children and families, sure, but since when is it Joe Q. Quarterback’s job to be upstanding so your children can sleep at night?”
Charles Barkley said it better than I ever could in this 1993 Nike ad:
Barkley himself proved the “I am not a role model” idea in spades, gambling to excess, even for someone with his bank account, and being convicted of DUI in 2008.
I’m sure there are many athletes who feel this way, but they all have too much money tied in endorsement deals to risk the image hits.
Let’s look at some other athletes who fail the “role model” test.
Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens linebacker: After the 2000 Super Bowl, Lewis was involved in an altercation which resulted in two deaths. Lewis was not charged with murder in exchange for testimony against his friends who were present, and was charged with obstruction of justice.
Tiger Woods, pro golfer: I’ve covered this already elsewhere, so we’ll leave it at “serial adulterer.”
Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls guard: As much as Jordan has earned his place as a legend, he might not be all that great a guy. He was a massive gambler, which in itself isn’t a problem, but many conspiracy theorists believe that his father’s murder in 1993 had to do with gambling debts, and some believe that his time in minor league baseball happened because the NBA was about to suspend him because they believed his gambling negatively affected the image of the league. More recently, Jordan used his Hall of Fame induction speech as a massive ego stroke. In particular, he called out Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf for treating him poorly, as Reinsdorf was dealing with terminal cancer. Also, Jordan made sure that the guy who made their junior high school basketball team ahead of Jordan was in attendance just so he could say “Guess what? Turns out I was better than you.”
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers guard: Accused of sexual assault by a Colorado resort employee. Settled out of court.
Donte’ Stallworth, Baltimore Ravens wide reciever: Charged with DUI and vehicular manslaughter after killing a pedestrian in 2009. Received 30 days in jail and was suspended for the ’09 season.
Ben Rorthlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback (Sorry, Kail.): Accused of sexual assualt on two occasions, no charges filed. Suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season for violating the NFL’s conduct policy.
LeBron James, Miami Heat forward: Not a criminal act, just pulling a Judas act on his home state to sign in South Beach. Born and raied in Akron, Ohio, James spent the first seven years of his career with Cleveland before leaving this season to play in Florida. If he had done this quietly, I’d have no problem. But using ESPN to build a primetime TV event around your decision was the ultimate form of grandstanding. You even used this ad to make it seem like you had no choice in the matter.
Here’s what I think you should do, Lebron. Shut the fuck up and play. Admit that this wasn’t because you wanted to play with friends, but that you were tired of trying to be a savior for an entire city. Admit that you did it because Dwyane Wade is better than you, so it means you won’t have as much pressure on you in games. Also, you destroyed your public image with this move. Every NBA fan outside of Miami hates you.
Athletes shoukdn’t be required to be role models. If they want to be, that’s fine. Just let them make that choice for themselves, otherwise you’re due for disaappointment.