Should NBA athletes be role models?

Armstrong Williams | 6/21/2013, 11:47 a.m.
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Charles Barkley famously said, "I am not a role model," in a widespread ad campaign in 1993. The ad ignited a large public debate about how athletes should be viewed by children and young adults.

Barkley believed parents and teachers were pushing their proper responsibility of being role models on athletes, and those athletes aren't necessarily good role models. Despite the ad being viewed in a negative light, he believed it was actually a positive message, in that it was more or less reaffirming the natural socioeconomic order for young adults to become successful. Children and young adults need direction from those who are close to them and know them; idolizing someone you know for playing a sport wouldn't work in the grand scheme of things.

The advance of cable TV at that point and mass marketing campaigns like "Image is Everything" and "Like Mike" made it easier for people to idolize athletes for all the wrong reasons and blur the line between who and what they should really value.

Barkley even said in his defense at one point, "There are 1,000 guys in jail who can dunk a basketball; should they be role models?"

So what's changed in the last 20 years? Well first off, the Internet became widespread shortly after the ad, newspapers and classic sports journalism have all but vanished since then, and the athlete is looked at in an entirely different light. The rise of online fantasy sports leagues and sports-obsessed culture have created a more results-oriented view. The athlete, while still either greatly admired or loathed, is now the means to an end for most sports fans, pure and simple. Winning is everything, and what those athletes do off the court is irrelevant now with few exceptions. This new mentality has made it easier to forgive a dramatic fall from grace in their personal lives.

Many forget that Kobe Bryant was accused of rape over 10 years ago, but his jersey is still one of the top sellers on the market. His incident is a mere blip on the radar for today's sports fan. Tiger Wood's scandal smashed his clean-cut image Nike and his agents created for him, and many think Woods only got married to bolster his image and marketability.

Despite losing major sponsors like Gatorade and Accenture after the scandal, he still had Nike, and he continues to gain many new sponsors as well. His public image took an initial blow but skyrocketed back up since rock bottom. Most fans concluded his personal life is irrelevant despite the mistake, because when they watch him hit a golf ball or win a tournament, it makes their day. The fact that he is arguably the greatest of all time in his sports and continues to dominate the game is what's really important.

Lance Armstrong is one exception, because he made the mistake of marketing himself entirely the old-fashioned way in a completely new era. He was the hero who returned to win from near-death; he never used steroids. It was the kind of story you could only imagine--the athlete who reached the pinnacle of his sport by winning the Tour de France, and one who seemed to have the determination no one could match. But that image was smashed over the last 10 years.