I'm Not A Role Model

The exploits of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley have stirred a debate about what pro athletes owe their fans. Are kids really that naive?

It's hard to believe now, but there war, supposedly, a time when every pink-faced, pug-nosed American youngster wanted more than anything to grow up to be president. Well, as any casual visit to the haunts of the young and unfamous will show, the aspirations of youth have undergone a change. If kids can be said to vote with their T shirts these days, it's sports stardom over politics by a landslide. Across the country, from West Hollywood to Miami Beach, mall rats are flaunting the leaping likenesses of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley on their chests. Presidents can raise taxes and wage war; but did Bill Clinton-or Hillary ever pump in 55 points in a playoff game?

Accordingly, the revelation that the slam-dunking Jordan has been running up scores in Atlantic City casinos, too, has rekindled some sharp debate about the obligation of sports figures to set examples for the young. In the brusquely forthright words of Barkley: "I'm not paid to be a role model. I'm paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court." That observation, immortalized in a widely seen television commercial, has stirred up roughly equal measures of support and dissent. "In essence Barkley is correct," says Boston College sociologist Michael Malec, former editor of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues. "If you want to emulate what he does on court, you've got a wonderful model there. That doesn't necessarily mean he ought to be a model as a father or husband." But others saw the remark as merely rationalizing Barkley's own uncourtly deportment. "Funny, how big shots accept all the trappings of role modeldom--especially the residual commercial cash-before they renounce their broader responsibilities to society," scolded New York Post sports watchdog Phil Mushnick. And fellow hoopster Karl Malone, in a column written for Sports Illustrated, chided Barkley directly : "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."

The debate itself has undergone a transformation; the Pollyanna premises of old have given way to the latter-day realpolitik of tarnished celebrity. Says sociologist Charles Payne, professor of African-American and urban studies at Northwestern University: "If you were to go through baseball's or football's Hall of Fame, you're not going to come up with a bunch of choirboys." Most fans, in any case, seem perfectly willing to overlook Jordan's gambling caper. For one thing, unlike Pete Rose, he hasn't been reckless enough to bet on his own sport. "It was just something he did for fun, not anything to harm anything," says 12-year-old Genny Sonday, of Lincoln, Neb., speaking for many of her peers.

But that doesn't quite get the ball jocks off the hook. Celebrities like Barkley may decline the honor, but their high visibility obliges them to behave with at least an awareness that they are being watched by millions. Like it or not, they have a power of influence on worshipful young fans multiplied by the huge factor of television-perhaps even more so among the minority poor, who have few other avatars of success to excite their hopes. It may be well and good to point out, as most child psychologists do, that parents are the main role models in a child's life. But that smugly assumes an intact and caring set of parents to do the job. "What does it say to the kid who doesn't really have anybody?" asks Dr. Robert Burton, a Northwestern University psychiatrist who specializes in treating athletes. "Kids need to have someone they can idealize in order to aspire to become better themselves. Without that, there's not much hope for them."

Role models operate on more than one level. Parents and teachers are the guiding lights for everyday reality. Star athletes and other celebrities-the Muhammad Alis and Babe Ruths, the Jordans and Barkleys-are the models in daydreams. They represent an impossible dream, perhaps, but something to grow on. Yet as press coverage of sports becomes less and less worshipful, these fantasy figures begin to look less than ideal. "They're womanizers, they're gamblers...they spit," says Carol Lorente, a Bolingbrook, Ill., magazine editor who has conflicting feelings about her 9-year-old son Paul's dreams of becoming a major-league player. "I don't expect my son to do those things because he's heard they do them. On the other hand, he wants to be one of those guys." In fact, there's little evidence in social-science literature that children actually adopt the behavior of athletes they adore. When Michael Jordan began wearing long shorts, young basketball enthusiasts everywhere suddenly began turning up in the kneelength look. But that doesn't mean they will model their lives on Jordan's. "There are not going to be many who say, 'Well, Michael Jordan gambles, then I'm gonna gamble'," says Gary Alan Fine, head of the sociology department at the University of Georgia and author of a book on Little League baseball.

On the whole, says Fine, celebrity role models no longer have such a huge impact on children, most of whom are fairly sophisticated by the time they reach the preadolescent years. "They don't have these wide-eyed beliefs that sports figures are somehow superhuman." Often, it's the parents, more than their children, who wind up being disillusioned. Dr. Gerald Dabbs, spokesman for the New York Council for Child Psychiatry, remembers that when Pee-Wee Herman was arrested for indecent exposure in a movie theater a few years ago, not a single child brought it up with him, but the parents did. Parents can set the tone for a child's response to models. "Forgiveness can also be part of role modeling," he says, "and understanding that people the children admire can do things that are disappointing, or even wrong." In fact, says Dabbs, there's nothing wrong with the dose of reality the kids get when a sports hero stumbles, although older children are likely to absorb it more easily. "When good people do bad things, part of what they get from that is learning to come to terms with one's own limitations," he says.

Mesmerizing focus: Television, with its ability to move in close and parse the action, has certainly brought the skills of players like Jordan into mesmerizing focus. But in spite of the tube, or perhaps because of it, celebrity heroes now appear to be more fleeting and fragmented, like the culture they come out of. Janet Harris, a professor in the department of physical education at the University of North Carolina, asked children and adolescents whom they most want to be like. "They had a lot of trouble answering," she says. "Most identified no one person, but several people with different characteristics. We or ended up not even using the data." As part of her study, to be released in her forthcoming book, "Athletes and the American Hero Dilemma," Harris analyzed popularity lists published in the World Almanac and found most of those selected remained on the list only a year or two. (Jordan, an exception, hung in for six, until the last time the list was published.) When a star stumbles, it's so widely and avidly reported now that even the very young can hardly avoid hearing about it. But the University of Georgia's Fine, for one, believes such exposure gives kids a more accurate idea of adults and society in general. "This is what adults are," says Fine. "One of the things kids have to learn is to make decisions about what the world is like and then make decisions on how to fit into that world." That's a lesson some of our more refractory superstars might do well to ponder, too.

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