Slam-Dunking Role Models



Basketball superstar Charles Barkley stares dead into the camera and grumbles, as only Charles Barkley can, ''I am not a role model.''

He makes this declaration in a Nike commercial hailed as one of the most refreshingly honest ads of recent times -- recent times being the past few weeks. Of course, the folks doing the hailing seem to overlook the not-so-honest fact that this commercial is aimed at people who might buy the brand precisely because Sir Charles is their role model.

Now, you'd never catch Oriole pitcher Rick Sutcliffe shirking his social responsibility as a jock who is known and loved by the masses. Athletes are role models, Mr. Sutcliffe insisted during an interview this week. This interview took place, by the way, just days after Mr. Sutcliffe and about 50 of his fellow role models from the Orioles and the Seattle Mariners engaged in a 20-minute, on-field donnybrook that one veteran umpire called the worst he has ever witnessed.

Mr. Sutcliffe was one of seven players suspended in the incident. Role model, schmole model.

The Barkley ad, for all its calculated ''honesty,'' is definitely onto something: Because some 25-year-old can slam-dunk a basketball or hit a baseball 450 feet and thereby make $5 million a year shouldn't necessarily earn him the status of role model.

Quite the contrary, says Towson State University sports psychologist Maggie Faulkner.

''A lot of athletes exhibit behavior, on and off the playing field, thatyou certainly wouldn't associate with role models,'' Ms. Faulkner explains. ''Look at the fights Barkley has been involved in over the years. But these athletes become role models by default, thanks to their fame and their amazing physical skills.''

She adds, ''Sometimes I feel sorry for them because of the way the public builds them up into something they're not and then holds them to impossible standards.''

That's why Jim Bouton's ''Ball Four'' was so shocking when published two decades ago. An unblinking inside account of a season in professional baseball, the book revealed the warts, twisted proclivities and generally infantile behavior of scores of major leaguers, including icons such as Mickey Mantle.

''Ball Four'' left us far less likely to be flabbergasted at reports of this player's passion for the ponies or that player's sex addiction. People get a little crimson-faced for a while, and then it's back to playing ball.

We've pretty much evolved from ''Say it ain't so, Joe'' to ''So what, Joe.'' Yet many of us -- and not only kids -- continue to harbor unrealistic expectations of athletes' values systems. Witness the huge fuss raised by Michael Jordan's recent foray to Atlantic City, and by allegations that he lost more than $1 million in golfing bets.

Granted, the widely expressed disappointment over these episodes had something to do with concern about Mr. Jordan's possibly having a gambling problem. But it also had as much, if not more, to do with a naive belief that because the Air man can fly over the hardwood, he should somehow be able to soar just as effortlessly above human frailty.

It can be difficult for some people to acknowledge the dark sides -- the human-ness -- of star athletes. At the same time, it can be a relief, for athletes and fans alike.

For the jocks, it means they can be themselves and not have to worry about whether their actions will brand them as menaces to our nation's youth. For fans, it means a shot at a better grip on reality, a better understanding of who our true role models are (parents, teachers, social activists, spiritual leaders, etc.) and who they are not (athletes, by and large).

JTC If we're able now to elect a presidential candidate who had gone public with his marital problems and his avoidance of military service, we can surely accept athletic superstars with rough edges of their own. This is a healthy thing, seeing the earthbound side of public figures we formerly held to sky-high measures of perfection. Even the gods of Greece, after all, had their tragic flaws.

Having recognized all this, maybe we can free athletes from the burden of being role models. With rare exceptions, they are little more than entertainers, and valuable to society in their own way. It's enough that they go out and, in the words of the Nike commercial, just do it.

As for being a role model, a hero, a person with the kind of deep moral integrity that can serve as a guiding light to others -- that's a whole different ball game.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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