PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES: Cultural Icons or Social Anomalies?

By Sailes, Gary | USA TODAY, September 2001 | Go to article overview

PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES: Cultural Icons or Social Anomalies?


Sailes, Gary, USA TODAY


Is it fair to demand that athletes serve as role models?

"I AM NOT a role model! I'm a professional basketball player. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models!" Charles Barkley uttered these words a few years back in a Nike commercial that stirred controversy across the country among fans and National Basketball Association players alike. His words drew criticism from players like David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, who felt Barkley should step up and be accountable as a role model. He felt Barkley, as a celebrity and public figure in a highly visible sports league, was a role model whether he wanted to be or not. It was simply a matter of choice: Was he going to be a good one or a bad one? As a professional athlete, Barkley was a role model, whether he liked it or not. By contrast, Alan Iverson and Dennis Rodman, two of the NBA's so-called "bad boys," were silent, much to the delight, I am sure, of league commissioner David Stem.

In light of recent events in the nation's headlines, the most notable being the O.J. Simpson, Ray Lewis, and Ray Carruth murder and manslaughter cases, one has to wonder: Don't athletes get it? They make millions in their contracts, are adored by fans, and are the envy of almost every red-blooded male. Why would they do anything that would jeopardize that incredibly lucrative position in our society? The problem has gotten so seriously out of hand that the images of all athletes who participate in professional sports are in jeopardy. Hooligans, thugs, and druggies are familiar words used to describe today's professional athletes.

It doesn't stop there, however. The phenomenon extends to collegiate athletes as well. The 2000-01 University of Illinois men's basketball team, as a result of their aggressive play, was labeled by the press and some opponents as the "Bad Boys." They received complaints and comments about their "dirty" play from their last opponent, the University of Arizona, who defeated them in the Elite Eight round in the 2001 NCAA Tournament.

The problems surrounding the public image of professional athletes has become so apparently serious that the commissioners of the major leagues (NBA, National Football League, National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball) and the NCAA met to establish the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance. Their focus was to demand good citizenship from its participating athletes. Stem said, "You mimic behavior, good and bad, and what you see on televised games. Athletes need to accept that they are role models!"

Cedric Dempsey, executive director of the NCAA, furthered that point by stating, "Athletes who refuse to accept their obligations as role models are blind to their responsibilities as adults." Nell Austrian, NFL president and CEO, made a final plea/point when he said, "Whether they want to be or don't want to be, players are role models and enlightened people realize that." Jim Brown, Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns, argued that "Today's athlete is an embarrassment to his community!" (He conveniently ignored the fact that he has been arrested a number of times on assault charges himself.)

I conducted a random survey of 300 college students at Indiana University, and approximately 66% felt it is the social and moral responsibility of athletes to serve as role models to America's youth, while approximately 30% believed that sport is merely a microcosm of society and consequently mirrors American culture. It is a reflection of the worst and best of society, they felt, stating that it was unfair to hold athletes to a higher standard of social and moral accountability than we hold ourselves.

For example, in a class discussion, my students asked why NBA star Michael Jordan should have been chastised for gambling when the majority of Americans gamble on golf and at casinos. So what if he gambled hundreds of thousands of dollars? …

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