TODAY'S PAPER
43° Good Afternoon
43° Good Afternoon
OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Athletes are not automatic role models

Former NBA basketball player Charles Barkley, right, greets

Former NBA basketball player Charles Barkley, right, greets a fan during the first half in a first-round SEC tournament game between Auburn and South Carolina on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Atlanta. Photo Credit: AP

In the roiling controversy over domestic violence perpetrated by NFL players, a familiar lament has been heard: This kind of behavior by the role models for our young people is deplorable.

Role models? Haven't we learned anything yet?

What is it about being an athlete that makes one a role model? Nothing, actually.

Hitting a baseball, or an opponent, or scoring touchdowns or goals doesn't make an athlete a role model. Just like a top 10 hit doesn't do that for a singer, or a popular television show for an actor.

Former basketball player and current sports commentator Charles Barkley had it right two decades ago when he said in a Nike commercial: "I am not a role model . . . Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids."

Think back to the moment you first saw Barkley staring into the camera, tight focus on his face as he uttered that first line -- so provocative, so powerful, so unusual. It jarred all of us, it made perfect sense, and then, eventually, many of us forgot.

Barkley, alas, reinforced his own message with his recent unfortunate comments in defense of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who has been charged with repeatedly hitting his 4-year-old son with a tree branch on his legs, back, buttocks and genitals, leaving him with numerous cuts and bruises.

"Whipping -- we do that all the time," Barkley said. "Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances."

Anointing athletes as role models is a curious process. Because the No. 1 requirement is that they excel at their sport. That's it. It's a Wall Street sort of thing: Success and success alone is worthy of emulation. In sports, that should make one a role model only by a very narrow definition. Look at him: That's how you tackle a ball carrier, that's how you follow through on your swing, that's a good defensive stance.

But that's how we end up disappointed time and time again. Because real role model status should be earned in other ways. By doing good deeds, by faithfully following a set of precepts, by setting a good example for how to go about your business and how to live a life.

In sports, as in entertainment, we need to pick our role models carefully. Even then, we can be let down.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were role models. So was Lance Armstrong. And Tiger Woods. All of them were role models, until they weren't.

Sometimes an athlete does end up fitting the bill. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera come to mind. But it takes more than a few years of being an all-star to earn that status.

Barkley got another thing right in that 1993 commercial when he said flatly that parents should be role models. It was not a unique observation. But it was spot on. As comedian George Carlin put it, in more profane fashion, "If your kid needs a role model and you ain't it, you're both [in trouble]."

The truth is that real role models abound in all of our lives. If not a parent, then a grandparent. Or a trusted teacher. Or someone working two jobs to keep a family afloat while still finding time to volunteer on the weekend. Or the veteran who fought for our country, came home to help keep it strong, and now has a smile and a free hand for anyone in the neighborhood.

If we're turning to athletes as role models because we see a vacuum of such examples in our lives, that's sad.

If it's because we're simply not looking, shame on us.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

Columns