NBA star Charles Barkley enjoyed plenty of controversy during his career. But he could not have predicted the massive outcry when, in 1993, he appeared in a Nike advert claiming that athletes should not be role models. “I don’t believe professional athletes should be role models. I believe parents should be role models…. It’s not like it was when I was growing up. My mom and my grandmother told me how it was going to be. If I didn’t like it, they said, ‘Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.’ Parents have to take better control,” he reckoned.
In an era when ear-biting, drug-taking and match-fixing are some of the examples being set on the sports fields, is it possible that the legendary basketball player may just have had a point? What are today’s kids learning from watching sport and should people who just happen to be rather good at the sport they choose to play be placed on pedestals and their behaviour, on and off the field, scrutinised and set as an example to follow?
Studies have shown that children tend to mimic the behaviour of the people they admire most. And in a society in which parents aren’t always present or don’t have copious amounts of time to spend with their children, sports stars and celebrities seem to be the obvious substitute. Those who don’t have staunch mothers or grandmothers like Barkley’s will inevitably look elsewhere for their role models.
Is it then the athlete’s responsibility to take over the role that once belonged to parents?
Granted, parents should take more control. But perhaps sports stars also need to realise that along with their fame and the honour of representing their province or country comes that responsibility to adhere to a certain set of norms known as acceptable behaviour, lest their questionable antics make their way to the back pages of the country’s newspapers and television screens.
Just ask Shane Warne or David Beckham or closer to home, the likes of Benedict Vilakazi and Herschelle Gibbs. The media are ready to pounce on any slight indiscretion on the part of athletes, and the public seem to lap it up, rushing for their copy of You magazine and the latest gossip on who Becks has been sleeping with.
While any average Joe adheres to a certain set of morals and values, the pressure to conduct oneself in a “respectable” manner seems to be hugely intensified once you’re in the limelight and have a green and gold shirt on your back.
And with many metaphors drawn between sport and life, the line between on-field and off-field behaviour seems to be a very faint one.
So whether they’re throwing a sneaky punch on the field in the heat of a game or beating someone over the head in a club, there is little difference. And even though they may not have asked for it, the naïve kid who idolises them will either be desperately disappointed or think that’s an acceptable example to follow.
So maybe Mr Barkley’s theory on parents is the ideal scenario. But it is inevitable that, regardless of whether he may have chosen it or not, he was a role model to many during his career. And while that may be a massive responsibility for any sport star to take on, perhaps it should also be seen as an incredible opportunity to inspire, motivate and spur a nation off their couches and onto the sport fields.
By Karien Jonckheere.