Role models of today aren't like heroes of old

MIKE ROYKO

July 02, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

There has been a debate about role models lately. It started when Charles Barkley did a Nike commercial saying that he is not a role model, he is a basketball player, and that it's the job of parents to be their children's role models.

This prompted other basketball stars to say, no, Charles is wrong, and that as a public figure, he must accept the responsibility of being a role model.

I agree with Barkley. The ability to jump high and slam dunk a basketball has entertainment value and pays well, but compared with other skills -- such as collecting garbage -- it really doesn't make the world a better place to live.

Think about that. Let us say that tomorrow nobody in the United States jumped high and slam dunked a basketball. So what? Would it affect your life? Of course not.

But if nobody in the United States picked up the garbage, we would really have a stinking mess, with flies and rodents and pestilence and all sorts of unpleasantness.

So one could argue that the guys who work on garbage trucks might be better role models than those who slam dunk basketballs, even though they don't get contracts to endorse overpriced, Taiwan-made athletic shoes.

But this question is probably best left to philosophers, social scientists and talk show hosts.

What interests me about it is the concept of the public figure as a role model for the young. That's a fairly recent development in our society.

When I was a kid, the phrase "role model" didn't exist. Sure, there were sports heroes. We copied their batting stances, but we didn't think about modeling our lives after them.

Well, there was one exception: Hack Wilson, a great Cubs home run hitter and legendary drunk. A few older guys in the neighborhood patterned themselves after him. They didn't hit as well as Wilson, but they were his equal in falling off a bar stool.

But before TV kidnapped our brains, athletes and show biz stars were not an everyday part of our lives. We didn't have the endless parade of celebrities that now roll across the TV screen. Which was probably beneficial. Social values weren't being established by Madonna, fat Roseanne, Magic Johnson, Geraldo, Oprah, David Letterman's guests, MTV, religious hucksters and hop-head rock stars.

We had the Saturday matinees at the neighborhood movie houses. But as role models, Abbott and Costello, Frankenstein and the Wolfman, and the Three Stooges had limited impact.

That left the family and neighborhood grown-ups -- parents, other relatives, neighbors, storekeepers, the beat cop, the bookie, the tavernkeeper, precinct captain and maybe a teacher or the school janitor.

Although we didn't know they were role models, and they didn't either, they were pretty good at filling that role.

For one thing, all of the men worked. They had little choice. Government provided almost no safety nets. Not even small cushions. So if a man didn't work, he couldn't buy food or clothing for his family, pay the rent, or buy a pail of beer. Credit cards didn't exist, so he couldn't pile up debt unless he went to a loan shark, who would whack his kneecaps with a bat if he didn't make payments. Working was the only realistic option. Either that or mooching off relatives or becoming a bum or jumping off a bridge. Most preferred work.

So as role models, they did set one excellent example: If you wanted food on the table, a roof over your head, a telephone, a radio, fuel for the stove and maybe the price of a drink or an occasional movie, you found a job and worked. It was as simple as that.

In fact, that was the American dream. Some might find this hard to believe, but the American dream didn't always include owning a $150,000 house with patio, a Japanese car with a CD player, a mini-van, big-screen TV, state-of-the-art stereo, a PC with CD-ROM, graphite-shafted golf clubs, three credit cards and a Club Med vacation. Such objects were not considered entitlements.

Another example they set was that if you wanted to buy a big ticket item -- a refrigerator, for example, or a used car -- you saved. Remarkably, people saved a bigger piece of their paycheck 50 years ago than they do today. When a rainy day came in those days, if you didn't have your own umbrella, there was no social worker to hand you one. You drowned.

So Barkley is probably right. It's the job of parents -- not dunkers, hip-hoppers, rappers and TV babblers -- to be role models.

Of course, conditions change. Parents used to be the role models. But that was when you could figure that when the old man left for work in the morning, he'd be home for dinner. Or at least in the corner tavern.

Today, when the male parent leaves the house in the morning, it isn't certain that he'll be back within a year, a decade, or ever.

It's hard to view a phantom as a role model.

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