As Tom Brady gets ready to play his first game of the season due to a suspension for not following the NFL rules I wanted to examine this topic that I have begun to think about more and more the older I get. What are professional athletes responsibility in our culture? I ask this question not as a parent but someone who grew up idolizing athletes and then feeling crushed when I would learn of their off field mistakes and wander how my role model could let me down. After all, weren't they supposed to be my hero?
Traditionally our culture has looked to athletes as people to emulate due to their status in the public eye but this idea was questioned in a 1993 commercial by NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley who said, “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.” Is he right?
Athletes are given the spotlight in our culture unlike anyone with the exception of actors and politicians. Due to their platform some claim athletes should not only perform their jobs but also live lives that as a society we can point to them as examples for our children or youth to emulate. Is this the correct attitude? In response to Charles Barkley’s commercial fellow NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone said, We don't choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one”. Maybe this is the better prism to look at this issue from. Undoubtedly people in positions of power or fame will be looked up to regardless of whether or not they want the responsibility. They will be either be a good example or a bad one and either can be learned from but what should be expected of them?
What is a role mode? Someone who’s behavior, example, or success deserves to be emulated. So why do we hold athletes up on a pedestal and act shocked when they do not meet our lofty expectations? Just because someone performs their job in the public eye does not make then deserving of emulation. Some fairly recent examples you may be familiar with are arguably some of the most popular athletes of all time. Michael Jordan had gambling and infidelity issues, Tiger Woods had a multitude of infidelity issues, and even my favorite athlete of all time, Peyton Manning, had sexual misconduct and performance enhancing drug allegations. When these athletes step out of line we act shocked and outraged. What did you expect? Just because we see them on commercials and they look like they are nice people who treat their families well are we truly that shallow to believe the image they project is the real them? Or do we just want to believe that because we need to believe they are good, nice and decent people?
People who say athletes should be role models will say that because of their platform and because of the amount of money they make they should be held to a high standard. I would say they should not be considered role models because it is creating an idol out of someone who does not deserve that level of awe. They are entertainers it is not in their job description to be good people. Lastly parents should be role models. Don’t abdicate responsibility and have your kids look to an athlete as their example. Don't point to them as a model of success just because they can throw a football or make a lot of money. Don't envy their lifestyle and make your child think that is true success. You try to be the example for your children so they can look up to you and see how a real man acts not a person they will never meet other than the image they want to project.
Don’t be surprised when athletes turn out to be bad people. Charles Barkley said it right at the end of his commercial, "Parents should be role models."As a parent (or future parent)strive to be a role model for your kids and teach them not to idolize other men. Enjoy athletes for their talent, not their character. If they turn out to be a role model it will only be a bonus.
J. Matthew King, Co-founder