Growing up playing sports, I can remember supporting my favorite team…any Boston/New England team…because I am shamelessly a “homer.” My team could be in last place but I would argue why my team was still better than anyone else’s first place team. Back in the days of my youth, I had a few very select individual athletes in these sports that I idolized, regardless of whether or not they were on the home team. Examples would include Wayne Gretzky (NHL), Larry Bird (NBA), and Roger Clemens (MLB). These players dominated their sport and that’s what drew me to them. It wasn’t their moral fiber, as that never was on my radar back when I was younger.
So I can’t fault today’s youth for standing outside a Massachusetts courthouse recently chanting “Innocent!!!” at former Patriot’s tight-end Aaron Hernandez as he was being arraigned on murder charges and simultaneously being investigated for involvement with a double homicide in 2012. There seems to be a perception among today’s youth (and adults who haven’t truly matured) that what these athletes do on the field of play trumps what they do in their personal life when it comes to being worthy of being someone’s role model.
This is rampant in today’s sports media society that children indoctrinate themselves with. Not even a week after a person was killed, and Hernandez was jailed on suspicion of murder, a major sports outlet was having an open debate about how the arrest of this tight-end was going to impact the Patriot’s offense. It’s not like Hernandez retired or decided to surrender his life to the mission field. He’s been booked on murder charges. Yet, the conversation went to what the Patriots were going to do without him as if Tom Brady and the Patriot’s offense were somehow victims worthy of the focus…as if the Patriot’s offense was somehow impacted more tragically than the family of Odin Lloyd.
In 1995, O.J. Simpson was accused, arraigned, indicted, stood trial, and eventually was acquitted of murder. Despite his bizarre behavior before his arrest (the white Bronco televised “slow chase”) and despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence pointing to his involvement in the murder of his ex-wife and her acquaintance, people rallied and supported him. Some of the support was ethnic, as people in that community could not bring themselves to believe that one of their own who made a great name for himself could possibly do such a thing. Others, whose loyalty for O.J. Simpson stood on the fact that he was idolized for his records on the field, could not bring themselves to believe he could have been implicated in that crime. After all, the first player in NFL history to rush for over 2000 yards in a single season (1973) couldn’t possibly be a double murderer…the two just don’t fit together. Well guess what? These athletes have two lives…a very public one in the arena…and a private one that, unfortunately, is still very public.
That was made very evident in 1993 when NBA legends Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan were being scrutinized for their off-the-court behaviors (both independent of each other). Both Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan were more than avid gamblers. Also, Barkley’s on-court behaviors were less than stellar, like the incident in 1991 when he spit on a fan during a basketball game because the fan was heckling him with racial slurs. He was suspended and fined. So by 1993, he clearly stated in an add for Nike® that, “I am not a role model.” You know what…I agree with him, but I agree with him on TWO levels.
Yes, he is not a role model that I want my kids, or anyone else’s for that matter, to idolize, emulate, and want to be like someday. I don’t want anyone’s kids to grow up thinking they have the license to spit at someone who is mean to them. And at the same time, I don’t want children to grow up thinking that your arena life can be great and that can somehow excuse you from being scrutinized for an unruly, ungodly, and immoral private life outside the arena. Imagine a child growing up with that mindset and becoming a world-class surgeon, only to lose it all because of demons he battles in his private life…like if he thought he was above everyone else and could literally get away with murder. This Hernandez arrest should go a long way in settling in the minds of starry-eyed young fans that no one is exempt from answering for the things they do in their private life just because someone WAS a star tight-end.
Which brings me to my second point about why I agree 100% with Barkley’s statement that he is NOT a role model. Because he shouldn’t be! Not because his behavior has forfeited his position as a role model. It’s because he shouldn’t be thrust into that role anyway. That’s NOT his job. As he put it, “My job is to wreak havoc on a basketball court.” A job for which he was well suited, well accomplished, and well paid. I’m good at what I do in my career and I should be set as an example to my PEERS to emulate me IN MY CAREER. Long ago, people I worked with and trained in my career path, learned valuable skills and “tricks of the trade” from me, and never once knew how much gambling I did away from the hospitals. But again, that’s because my private life can be kept out of the limelight. So I get a pass by virtue of the fact that I’m not important enough to have my private life on display. Yet these people who emulated aspects of my career are doing well, because they emulated me in that aspect of my life. So if you want to be a star basketball player, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are great role models to emulate.
Your personal life should not be modeled after your star athletes. At eight years old, where does that training start? It lies with the parents who should be shaping the child in two ways. First, they should be sheltering their child from unseemly influences all the while teaching them that the individuals that children idolize in sports and entertainment are not worthy of 100% total emulation. Case in point…while keeping our children in a Christian school and now homeschooling them, and by removing television feed to our home, we have been able to control a lot of what they are exposed to. They don’t know who Justin Bieber is. They don’t know who Hannah Montana is. They don’t know that dam can mean something other than a structure that holds back water. That’s what our job is as parents…when they’re young and impressionable…to keep them from wanting to be like their idols and then having them discover their idol’s “private” life and believing that’s part of how to get famous and how you act once you are famous. That’s why Barkley proclaims he’s not a role model…it’s not fair to him because it’s OUR job. I’m not advocating for people to live reckless and sinful lives, I’m just saying I don’t believe we should impose a demand on a star to behave in such a way that makes my job as a parent easier while raising my youngster 3000 miles away from Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. Being a parent is hard work, and this is just part of being a parent.
In response to Barkley’s claim, Karl “The Mailman” Malone, of the NBA, said this: “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.” Well, these athletes are “chosen role models” by children who watch them perform on game night…and I agree with Karl Malone to this extent. These athletes need to be good role models to aspiring young professional athlete wanna-bes…on the court, and then stop being “chosen role models” after the final buzzer. I realize that speaking only about my past experience is a small sample size, but I knew NOTHING of John McEnroe’s private and personal life. Ya know what shaped me as a tennis player? The desire to be as successful as he was. Ya know what shaped my on-court behavior? Watching him argue, dispute calls, berate umpires, break racquets, and act like an overall jerk on the court. I emulated that behavior and it had nothing to do with his personal and private life of which I knew nothing. It was his on court antics that made me behave that way on the court. So Karl Malone is right only to the extent that these professional athletes chose a very public and high profile life…in the arena. They did NOT choose the high profile exposure of their personal life…and that’s what I think is unfair and why I side with Charles Barkley’s statement. Karl Malone is right too…but again, the responsibility of being a role model ends when the final out is recorded and they get into their cars to head home.
But that’s sports. That’s NOT the Christian life. The Christian life transcends ALL of life. So if we’re going to talk about role models and who and what should shape our lives, we have to understand that the Christian life TRANSCENDS everything else. The word transcends means to rise above or go beyond the limits of. So our only TRUE role model should be Christ Himself. Oh, we can model our lives after anyone else, but they’ll be fallible, and even the most well-meaning individual has the potential to disappoint you or lead you astray. But to follow the principals and precepts of the Bible, you can’t be let down, as God is unfailing!
In 1st Corinthians 11, Paul says to us that we should follow him, but he doesn’t leave it there. He says we should follow him as he follows Christ (vs. 1). This enhances Paul’s request that he gives us in Philippians 3:17, “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example.” We can follow Paul (and others) because they follow Christ. So, as I said in the previous paragraph, the one TRUE role model is Christ Himself.
So if you want to choose a role model (mark someone) make sure they’re at least following Christ. Now is it clear why I agree with Charles Barkley that he is NOT a role model, because he shouldn’t be. Your neighbor shouldn’t be your role model either, unless you have a pretty good clue that he’s following Christ by looking closely at how he lives his life. The interesting aspect in this whole thing is that if we are Christians and we are following Christ, we are to be role models and examples to others (Philippians 3:17), but how many of us would be comfortable telling a babe in Christ, “Follow me.” That’s a huge responsibility.
With that being said, being a role model is a responsibility that shouldn’t be given to anyone not worthy of the task, and it shouldn’t be a responsibility that should be taken lightly. Tiger Woods had this to say about being a role model: “If you are given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person’s life in a positive light, and that’s what I want to do. That’s what it’s all about.” Unfortunately he was fallible and let many people down once his private life became public; and how many people did he inadvertently influence in a negative light?
If you have leadership responsibilities, as I do in my church, God can show Himself merciful to you if anyone, even ourselves, lays upon you role model status. A mother in the church came to me one evening after her son had made a profession of faith and thanked me for taking the time to answer her son’s questions and help him understand salvation. As a teacher in the teen ministry, I am supposed to be a role model to them, again, according to Philippians 3:17. God’s mercy came in the form of a restraint that helps me to be the best Christ follower I can be, in order that I may be a role model to this young man. I can’t control what I have done in the far gone past, but I can’t bare the thought of doing something stupid now and ruining my testimony that I worked hard to achieve and disappointing this young babe in Christ, or disappointing this mom who thanked me. As in the case of Tiger Woods, that may just be enough to influence them in a negative light…and that would be heartbreaking to say the least…and that is what the restraint is…the potential gut wrenching feeling to know you let someone down. But that only works if you’re following Christ sincerely, and you even care about your testimony to others.
A final word of caution though…if you don’t care about being a role model, and you end up influencing others negatively and lead them to sin, avoid the water (Matthew 18:6)!!!