I found myself in the middle of Pride and Prejudice, in awe at the character of Mr. Darcy. As with so many of Jane Austen’s male characters, they are at first misunderstood and slightly un-likeable, but upon further study, the reader begins to truly love them. And this made me think of something seemingly unrelated: Allen Iverson.
Yes, I mean the dread-locked, tattoo-laden, practice-skipping point guard for the Denver Nuggets, who has spent most of his career in Philadelphia. I used to hate this guy. I mean, frothing at the mouth, yelling at the t.v., venomously loathing this man. And then, I saw the game in which he returned to Philadelphia for the first time since being traded, and saw the crowd give him a five-minute ovation, and watched him cry, and heard the analysts telling stories of what this guy has done for the community there, and I was intrigued. Maybe I had misjudged him. Beneath the ink, bling, and posse, was he a worthy role model?
PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES: No One Should be Paid to be a Role Model
“I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”
Charles Barkley, the famous forward for the Phoenix Suns, revolutionized the world of sports debate in the early 1900’s with this simple statement. Sports stars had long been idolized (and still are) by young people for their athletic prowess, but did they bear any kind of a responsibility, subsequently, to be upstanding and noble in their private lives?
Are professional athletes really still our heroes? These men and women have trained most of their lives to become very good at what they do, but have other aspects of their lives, such as strength of character, become just as important in earning “idol” status among today’s people? Absolutely. A professional athlete with high standards is respected far more than one without said standards. As major public figures, athletes are and should act as role models.
Admittedly, athletes have it a little rough. Some come from very humble circumstances and communities. Some come from very little education. Some come from bad families, bad neighborhoods, and bad habits. After coming from these varied environments, however, they suddenly come into fame, masses of wealth, and public attention. It would be hard for anyone to stand up to the media onslaught most modern-day athletes endure, but harder still is coping with the sudden possibilities a life of wealth and fame bring. Those who are not ready and prepared for this life often make massive mistakes.
Athletes are also exposed to the public more often than other celebrities. An actor can really only be seen as often as his movie is seen, but a quarterback is seen every consecutive Sunday for weeks in the fall. Sinead O’Connor (an Irish songwriter) is heard only as often as she is listened to, but Shaquille O’Neal (Phoenix Suns center and basketball star) is seen 82 times in the winter and spring.
Should their lives be held to such intense scrutiny? They are, technically, just athletes. They are really good at making inflatable objects go through steel circles, or throwing things farther than other people, or running faster and jumping farther and winning seemingly pointless events. At no time did they sign a lifetime contract assuring the public they would be a model citizen in everything they do. But is that really something that needs to be written down?
It is important that these men and women in our professional sports keep high standards, and especially important is the influence athletes have on children. Kids look for heroes, and they should be given something to live up to, not down to. Little boys and girls don’t follow the careers of politicians, secretly hoping that someday they can be like John Edwards. All little boys would rather grow up to play under John Chaney (former Temple University basketball coach) than work for Dick Cheney (United States Vice President), and most modern little girls would rather be like Diana Taurasi (WNBA Basketball Star) than like Nancy Pelosi (Speaker of the House).
Unfortunately, there are bad examples out there of athletes-gone-wrong. There are men like Mike Tyson, who was a world champion boxer and a world champion brawler, threatening the lives of opponents’ families, getting in fights outside of bars, and losing all of his money in frivolous spending.
Bobby Knight, the former coach of the oft-successful Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball team (he is presently in a state of consulting/retirement), coached his teams to titles, but verbally and physically abused his own players and threw explosive temper tantrums, not to mention folding chairs.
There’s Pete Rose, who is inarguably one of the best baseball players ever, but who has also been accused of gambling on his own sport, preventing him from being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, which he otherwise would so richly deserve.
And let’s not forget Kobe Bryant, who is admittedly a philanderer, if not a felon. He is absolutely amazing and virtually peerless on today’s basketball court, with a fade-away jumper that a high school ball player will work hours in imitating in his driveway, but his relationship with his wife is not one that should be emulated by these boys in their youthful pursuits.
In more recent news, Michael Vick, the extremely talented former quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, who was considered by many to be the “new face of the National Football league”, was caught in a dog-fighting scandal. According to multiple sources, prior to the discovery of these atrocious acts, his popularity exceeded every other player in the NFL. Statistically, more kids wore his numbers than any other active player, but now many fathers don’t want their kids wearing those jerseys. Worse yet, while awaiting trial, it was revealed that Vick had tested positive for marijuana.
Marion Jones, who holds many Olympic records for the Summer Games and lit up the 1996 Atlanta Games, recently came forward and admitted she had knowingly used steroids at the time of competition. While it can and should be admired that she came forth and admitted guilt of her own free will, the admission in no way removes the example Jones gave of steroid use, and all her wins and successes will forever be forgotten under the haze of her error.
Barry Bonds, our most recently-crowned home run king, has been involved in scandal after scandal, including allegations of steroid use and affairs with women. However, Bonds’ least redeeming quality is probably his demeanor. He refuses to share rooms with teammates, speaks to the media in as surly a manner as possible, and gives no one credit for his success but himself. He hasn’t even taken time to be in his team picture the last three years. He just left the San Francisco Giants in the off-season, and shockingly, no other team has picked him up.
O.J. Simpson, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, who is one of the best running backs of all time, was tried for a double murder, but miraculously (and suspiciously) cleared of guilt. He had been living in relative obscurity until a recent, almost comical outburst in which Simpson, armed to the teeth, attacked a man thought to have been stealing the star’s football memorabilia. He now awaits yet another trial.
Then, there are stars like Tonya Harding (the ice-skating hitman-hirer), John Daly (the drunken golfer), and Terrel Owens, Chad Johnson, and Randy Moss (all three Pro Bowl wide receivers with very wide mouths). It seems, with all these examples, that our nation is doomed to hearing story after story of successful athletes leading unsuccessful lives.
But there is hope. Most athletes aren’t nearly that despicable, most are completely normal, and some are downright admirable.
Let’s look on the local stage: the Utah Jazz (Salt Lake City’s professional basketball team) is a haven for athletes of good reputation. John Stockton, the long-time point guard who played near-perfect basketball for ages, never once needed the spotlight on the court. He has a large family and loves his wife. Jeff Hornacek (former shooting guard) is loved and admired in Utah as one of the best 3-point shooters who has ever played, but most guys admire him more because he’s a nice guy and a great father. Jaron Collins (current center) graduated from Stanford, and though he averaged less than a minute of play this post-season, he is always willing to speak with the media, no matter the outcome of a game, with a big smile on his face and an intelligent, elpquent, humble delivery. Jerry Sloan, the career coach of the Jazz, though occasionally afflicted with a severe potty-mouth, took extended time off only once, and that was for his wife’s funeral. He attributes all of his success to her, and even tried to clean up his language at her request. Greg Ostertag, the former Jazz big man, is not as admired as the previous three men for his talent and skill (and that especially includes this writer, the big klutz), but he is admired by his sister. She is currently alive because Greg gave her his kidney.
Outside of Utah, there have been and still will be real heroes in professional sports. David Robinson was a lieutenant in the Navy and has donated much of his time and money to service and charities. Lance Armstrong overcame cancer to win the Tour De France a record seven times, inspiring millions. Wyoming long shot Rulon Gardner won a gold medal in wrestling, then was caught in a violent snowstorm, losing half of his toes, but was back up and training to win again in no time.
Manute Bol and Dikembe Mutumbo are both native Africans who made it big in the NBA, and both nearly went broke giving most of their money back to their home towns in Africa, trying to improve living conditions and education. Hakeem Olajuwon, a former league MVP and also a native African, took nearly a month during the middle of every season to go through a strict religious fast. Shawn Green, a Jewish baseball player for the New York Mets, holds to his religious convictions and refuses to play on the Jewish Sabbath, waiting until after the sun has gone down Saturday night (sometimes during the middle of a game) to start playing.
Lebron James has been a good example to the millions of kids aspiring to be pro basketball players. Young and successful, James hasn’t allowed this fame to go to his head. For the most part, he stays humble, does what his coach asks of him, and is kind to teammates, the press, and the fans.
Hank Aaron has recently been re-crowned America’s “real” home run king. After playing many years without the aid of steroids, Aaron meekly held the home run record for a long time until Bond’s recent success. Aaron, however, was also a superb teammate, attributed no success to himself, quietly broke records, and these days is working to help at-risk children develop the skills needed to leave their hard lives behind.
And let’s not forget the contributions of many noble women athletes. Venus and Serena Williams are two of the world’s best tennis players, but they were raised in a horrible neighborhood in Compton, L.A. Rising to success from that low of a level has been an inspiration to lots of young American kids. Nancy Lopez was a world champion golfer until she randomly decided to quit and raise a family, and is now leading an admirable life she finds even more enjoyable. Mia Hamm, the famous American soccer star, is a great example to lots of girls of the levels of success any woman can achieve. Kristy Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan are both Olympic figure skaters of Asian descent that took the time to get solid educations.
In conclusion, it seems altogether fitting that this story of a hero named Maurice Cheeks be shared. In 2003, at a Portland Trailblazers’ game (basketball), a local girl got up to sing the Star-Spangled Banner. She was quite nervous to begin with, and singing in front of many thousands of people didn’t really help the situation much. Halfway through the song, she just stopped. Frantically, she tried to start again several times, but came up dead blank. She had forgotten the words to the national anthem, right in front of all those Trailblazers, at least those players who were on parole for the game (2003 was a hard year legally for the Portland franchise).
Unexpectedly, the Blazers’ coach, Maurice Cheeks, walked calmly over, put his arm around the girl, and started in with “and the rockets’ red glare…” The girl, mildly dazed, joined in with Cheeks and finished with him. Granted, Coach Cheeks was no amazing soloist, but to that girl, who tearfully hugged and thanked him afterward, he was a hero.
So, whether it is fair or not, those who are only trained to play sports have a civic duty to have political opinions, stay morally clean, and keep high standards. It becomes their responsibility as prolific citizens to lead lives worthy of emulation.
“I am not paid to be a role model.” Well, neither is anyone else.