Athletes: Heroes, Role Models

Charles Barkley has said some outrageous things in his career, both as an NBA star and as a broadcaster. And while I normally enjoy his running commentary (because let’s face it, like Simon Cowell, he has no filter and tells it like it is. I appreciate honesty), one of the more outlandish things he’s come up with was his famous “I am not a role model” line that he wrote for a Nike commercial.

(And yes, I understand he made this comment several years ago, but it still resonates today – and I think it’s even more relevant today than it was in 1993).

Now, I understand and agree with the point that the Mouth of the South was trying to make – that parents­ should be the first line of defense when it comes to role models. However, I think his view was very short-sighted then, and it applies even less to the youth of today. Why? I’m glad you asked.

First, the raw numbers make this near impossible for a majority of the U.S. population. Data crunched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that in 2010 (the most recent year complete data is available), a full 66% of African American children live in a single-parent home. For Native Americans, the number drops marginally to 52%. For Hispanic or Latin, it again falls incrementally, to 41%. A full 24% of non-Hispanic white kids live in single-parent homes. For the entire population, 34% of all children live in a single-parent household. That’s one out of every three children in the United States lives in a single-parent home.

Here are some more statistics:  84% of kids growing under a single parent live with their mothers; 53.7% of custodial single parents work full time jobs, while 30% are temps; and the average household income for custodial parents is $28,000.

Given the complexities – social, financial, educational, developmental – that are present in a single-parent household, it’s difficult to easily identify how a role model can come from within the home. Is a good role model one who works a temp job for minimum wage? Is a good role model one who works three jobs to help make ends meet and is gone for 18 hours a day? Is a good role model one who is forced, by circumstance, to live in an urban war zone because there is no other way out? (And yes, I realize there are some who can make these sorts of situations work – see Eboni Boykin. But the very fact her story is newsworthy shows how rare it is).

A second reason that kids use athletes as role models is the sheer money that can be made in professional sports. And in this day and age when the disparity between the haves and have-nots is ever-widening and shows no sign of decreasing, kids see that big payday and think “I want to do that.” But that should be just the start. I like to think that the whole “Be Like Mike” campaign that Nike ran several years ago meant more than just “Dunk Like Mike.” I like to think it meant play like Mike, smile like Mike, win like Mike, be gracious like Mike, love your father like Mike, and be a successful businessman like Mike. Talk about a good role model. (And hey, when you make that much money, if you want to gamble some – ok, a lot – of it away, that’s your choice. It doesn’t make you less of a role model, like say, oh, drunk-driving, murder, cheating, or assault would).

Kids aren’t dumb. They realize not all of them are cut out to be astrophysicists or neurosurgeons. But they see a guy drain 3-pointers, or hit a baseball 400 feet – and while they may not do that consistently as youths, the more they evolve and the more they grow into their bodies, it becomes a little easier. And for many, the dream soon becomes a reality. Of playing high school varsity ball. Or going to college. Or even making it to the professional ranks.

The odds are against ANYONE making it to the pros. However, as long as that dream is alive, it’s imperative to nurture that dream. And that’s where professional athletes as role models come in. Professional athletes must realize that kids look up to them, whether they like it or not. Kids emulate them. I will never forget watching Pepperdine University play in the College World Series and seeing their pitcher Patrick Ahearne on the mound. I thought “That’s a familiar windup and delivery.” Sure enough, over the course of the game the announcers said that Orel Hershiser was his favorite player of all time, and he copied his delivery exactly.

How many kids growing up in New England in the 1960s and 1970s copied Carl Yastrzemski’s unorthodox batting stance? How many kids playing basketball in Los Angeles in the 1980s wore No. 32 because that’s the number Magic wore?

But that’s just the start – being a true role model transcends what happens on the field of play. The athletic achievements are just the hook. Whatever else an athlete does is the line, and the sinker. Look at the most beloved athletes in sports over the years. Cal Ripken Jr. Steve Nash. Tommy Lasorda. Peyton Manning. Wayne Gretzky. John Wooden. David Ortiz. Grant Hill. What do they all have in common? They are as good off the field as they are on the field.

THAT’S what kids will remember, and should emulate. And that’s why it’s important for athletes to remember that they are in the spotlight every moment of their lives. They may not like it. They may not want it. But that’s the price of fame. Does it hurt to wave to a kid as you’re coming into the dugout? To look up and smile as you are headed to the locker room? Give a kid a high-five?

In a time where it seems more and more negative sports news hits the airwaves, these little gestures are what kids will take home with them and think “He’s a nice guy – I want to do something like that.”

Eventually, the transgressions in the sports world will fade from memory. But the good things – like when Red Sox reliever Mark Clear threw me a baseball at the Metrodome when I was 12, because I was wearing Red Sox gear in a hostile environment – stay with you for a lifetime.

And in the end, isn’t that really what’s important?

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