Maybe Charles Barkley was right after all. Sir Charles took a lot of heat for a Nike television spot some 14 years ago when the great pro basketball star declared, “I am not a role model . . . parents should be role models.”
We were reminded of this the other day when TV caught up with Mike Tyson, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, O.J. Simpson and “Pacman” Jones – and it was a news report, not sports.
Tyson was getting out of jail for DUI and cocaine possession. Vick was going in for running a dogfighting business and for murdering pooches.
Bonds was under the legal microscope again for alleged steroid use, and O.J. was back in court because of the “sting” operation he reportedly organized to regain personal items from a memorabilia collector that the former USC and Buffalo Bills football star argued were stolen.
Pacman’s name was brought up in a conversation about athletes and various off-hours altercations, the sort of thing to which the multitalented Tennessee Titans gridiron star is not exactly a stranger.
What’s the problem with big-time sports heroes, anyhow? How come so many of them seem to have so much trouble obeying the law?
If one of them isn’t throwing a 135-pound ribbon clerk through a mirror at some sports bar, another is busting somebody’s head or leading a raid reminiscent of ancient Vikings to rape and pillage and plunder.
Parents should be role models, indeed.
We’re no longer surprised when a name athlete steps out of bounds with the legal system. In fact, we’ve almost come to expect it. And it’s a shame.
Because kids do try to model themselves after athletic heroes, Barkley’s disclaimer to the contrary notwithstanding.
But what is it with a millionaire ballplayer, fighter, running back, whatever . . . acting like – or being in position to be accused of acting like – a cheap thug?
Pauline Wallin, a Ph.D., in an essay titled “Are Sports Heroes More Trouble-Prone?” answers that question in the affirmative.
“It’s ironic,” she writes, “that so many champions who made it to the top through determination, focus and discipline could display such poor judgment off the playing field.”
Ms. Wallin says many people blame a system that rewards athletes with outrageously high salaries and provides them instant celebrity and privilege.
While this may be true to a degree, she suggests professional athletes have personality traits that not only enhance their ability in games – but also make them more likely to get into trouble.
To begin with, she writes that most of them are more aggressive and competitive than other people.
“People who are aggressive and competitive don’t back down from a challenge,” she says.
Strangely enough, one characteristic we all admire in athletes – confidence – can also turn a hero into one of those stars behind bars.
“An inflated sense of confidence is one of the factors that leads athletes to take more risk than the average person,” Wallin writes.
Overconfident, an athlete can minimize the consequence of risky behavior.
“Most of these guys thrive on action, quick-changing situations and uncertainty,” she says. “This is what gives them the edge until the very last second of a game.”
Unfortunately, when the game is over, the athlete neglects to turn off that initiative and aggressiveness.
What’s the answer?
“Sports stars have to work harder,” Wallin writes, “to stay out of trouble.”
One of my friends suggested, tongue in cheek, paying bonuses to athletes who obey the law. Maybe another two or three million dollars a year to stay out of jail.
Or they might be forced to play without a helmet (but the way some of them act, it seems they’ve already tried that).
They are what they are – overgrown kids with overgrown egos and a certainty deep inside that because they can run fast, jump high or throw far, they can get away with any damn thing they please.
Barkley was right. Parents should be the role models.