Back in the spring of 1993, basketball superstar Charles Barkley created a stir when he starred in this Nike television ad.
Barkley made it clear that the role of athletes was simply to perform on the court or field of play. He concluded that he had no moral obligations to be a role model for young people. Barkley is quoted in the controversial spot as saying, “I am not a role model. Parents should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
At the time, many of his fellow athletes disagreed with him. For decades, athletes had been venerated to a higher status in North America and many of them took this obligation seriously. During the subsequent fallout from Barkley’s commercial, NBA star Karl Malone was quoted as saying , “Charles… I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”
And even though we now have the benefit of more than 20 years of hindsight, there is still a passionate public debate on this topic. Are athletes role models for kids?
In the past two weeks, we have seen a number of NFL stars become entangled in controversies involving domestic abuse. First there was the video release of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator. Then there was the indictment of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on charges of child abuse and neglect—where he allegedly beat his four-year-old son with a tree branch as a form of discipline. You can also lump in similar allegations toward Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer and an old case against Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
And if you think these incidents of domestic abuse are limited to football players, you’d be wrong. This summer, former NBA No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden allegedly punched his girlfriend in the face, leaving her with a broken nose. In July, former MLB star Chuck Knoblauch was arrested for reportedly smashing his wife’s face against a wall and throwing a humidifier at her. And last fall, NHL goaltender Semyon Varlamov was arrested for allegedly pulling his girlfriend by the hair and kicking her.
These latest incidents have many people re-visiting Barkley’s commercial from 1993 and applying it to today’s athletes. In my opinion, Barkley may have ruffled some feathers 20 years ago, but he was accurate with his statements that athletes aren’t role models for children. Kids need to have role models they can interact with on a daily basis and have a meaningful relationship with. This is why parents, teachers, coaches and other adults should be the primary role models in a young person’s life. The posters on the walls can’t talk back to kids and give them any meaningful tips on how to navigate life. The relationship between an athlete and their fans is skin-deep—limited to sound-bytes on television and carefully crafted PR images.
Athletes may have money, fame and take up a significant amount of your child’s screen time—but that doesn’t mean you should put any faith in them to be a role models outside of the arena or stadium. Teach your kids to enjoy athletes for their work on the field because there is nothing wrong with hero-worshipping from that standpoint.
But if you are looking for moral guidance from a professional athlete, you will be sadly disappointed. When it comes to being an influence on a child’s life, parents need to be the stars—not the athletes.
Follow along as Ottawa-based sports radio host Ian Mendes gets candid about raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with his wife, Sonia. Read all of Ian’s The Good Sport posts and follow him on Twitter @ian_mendes.