As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
In 1993, unbelievably a quarter of a century ago, Charles Barkley declared in a provocative Nike ad that, “I am not a role model.” The bit targeted the idolization of athletes who, in reality, do little more than entertain. Whatever you think of Barkley, it was, at the time, a controversial and much needed challenge to skewed personal value systems.
About 10 years ago and a decade and a half its release, I used Barkley’s ad for a piece on misguided hero-worship in this very column. The inspiration arrived via a local charity golf tournament attended by local dignitaries, law enforcement, social workers and a former professional athlete. All gave speeches. All but one received polite applause – the former professional athlete brought the house down. Despite the presence of several people having a direct, tangible and important impact on our local community, it was the professional athlete, one with no ties to Southern Maryland, who easily won the crowd’s adoration.
It was a strange scene, especially considering the audience was a pack of adults, not a goo-goo eyed crop of impressionable adolescents. My conclusion in the article was this: Fifteen years after Barkley’s message, little had changed – by deifying athletes and not those who influence the pillars of society and our individual lives, we still had the role model thing all wrong.
The years have provided many names that support Barkley’s claim that athletes have no business being in the role model business - Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Floyd Mayweather, Ryan Lochte and Ben Roethlisberger, to name but a few. In fact, if the aperture is expanded to include those of power and fame – Steve Jobs, the Catholic Church and presidents Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump - Barkley’s only error may be that his scope was too narrow.
But I am, despite this list of miscreants, revisiting Barkley’s position and my endorsement. Time…and circumstance have a way of bending one’s perspective.
Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul. Her music…white, African American, old, young: so long as you have a pulse, it reaches some special place in the human soul.
Franklin left us last week, but her legacy will be long-lasting. At age 45, though, I am not old enough to have experienced her prime. I am also male and white, so while I can contemplate her impact on young women, and particularly on young women of color, I can’t possibly get it. Not fully. But the trail from Franklin through Diana Ross, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Adele isn’t hard to trace.
This is where Barkley’s contention that he wasn’t a role model because he simply bounced a basketball missed the mark. Applied to Franklin, Barkley’s 1993 message would argue that as “just a singer”, and not someone who saved lives on a daily basis, educated children or protected families from harm, she wasn’t a role model either – a preposterous suggestion.
For some unbiased clarity, Meriam-Webster defines a role model as, “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others”. The phrase “in a particular role” suggests there’s no absolute formula; it allows for flaws, differences in social contributions and latitude for the prospecting imitator to select particular aspects of the role model’s character or accomplishments.
Barkley’s suggestion that society overvalues power and fame was profound (it’s only gotten worse), but the powerful and famous – including athletes and musicians/entertainers – aren’t automatically disqualified from role model consideration by trade alone. Further, and this is something to be mindful of, individuals don’t get to decide whether they become role models; the people who observe and are influenced by their actions do.
As for that imitation thing…no one can sing like Aretha Franklin. But Meriam-Webster’s imitation doesn’t have to be literal. Franklin’s music was a feel-good tonic for whatever was ailing you. Her golden voice made you happy. Duplicating that magic for those in our lives and on our own scale is a worthy endeavor – that’s why Franklin’s a role model. We all have an ability to make people smile or to lighten their blues, even if we can’t carry a simple tune.
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