“I am not a role model…”

Top-level athletes are impressive in many ways, but not as people to look up to

In the early 90s Charles Barkley, a basketball hall-of-famer and overall very outspoken player, appeared in a commercial for Nike in which he defiantly proclaimed: “I am not a role model, just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” I love this quote; it’s a massive simplification of the subject and I imagine, unfortunately, that some Nike executive probably got him to say it, but it still rings very true.

The fact Barkley said this in a Nike advert is quite apt, because even back then he was a product. He and his contemporaries, across multiple disciplines around the world, were the first crop of an emerging cultural shift: players really weren’t normal people any more. Long gone were the days when you could see the best players having a quiet pint on a Sunday evening like George Best.

I think you could point to a few things that accelerated this shift. The “Dream Team” that the United States brought to the 1992 Olympics put the National Basketball Association (NBA) on the international stage and, just a few months after the Olympics, a little venture called the Premier League was starting in the UK. Both of these things escalated the NBA and the top tier of English football respectively and led the way to them becoming money making behemoths, and sports becoming one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world.

Players were no longer just people, but walking billboards and brands. Ultimately there’d be a content shift too, and the players would quickly become far more significant then the games that made them famous. This would remove most players so far from any semblance of reality that using the term “role model” around them seems foolish.

A role model is someone we not only look up to, but hope to imitate. Just because you can kick a football well doesn’t make you a good person. I’ll give you a perfect example of this: when I was growing up, Ryan Giggs was my favourite footballer. I enjoyed watching him adapt his game as he got older and become a player who sat back and dictated play more. His volley against Fulham in 2007 and his assist for Michael Owen’s winner in the Manchester Derby in 2009 stand out as some of the best pieces of play I’ve seen.

I respected his allegiance to the club too, having stayed there for his entire career. Ryan Giggs’ loyalty however, did not stretch into his personal life. An affair with his brother’s wife estranged Giggs from his family and ruined my appreciation of what is a great footballer with a slack sense of morality. And examples continue to be made to this day, with the horrendous Paddy Jackson trial.

As sport became an entertainment industry, celebrity status closely followed, meaning players’ personal lives were suddenly of interest. But even the players who keep their personal lives in order are questionable role models. We live in the era of the individual and sport is no exception. We don’t talk about Barcelona, we talk about Leo Messi, we don’t talk about the Cleveland Cavaliers, we talk about LeBron James. Both of these players have been at the top of their sports for over ten years, have both done great philanthropic work and appear to be grounded individuals, but they still shouldn’t be role models. The mentality that made them who they are, in reality, is not a healthy one.

An insanely driven, self-obsessed focus. In truth, if everyone looked at the world as Cristiano Ronaldo does, we’d all be friendless, stressed, and infinitely unhappy. Despite this, these players are the perhaps the greatest we’ll ever see in their sports. Leo Messi plays football like a poet and I already know LeBron James is the most dominant athlete I’ll ever see. You have to take them and all other stars in the abstract, they are freaks of nature, outliers, pieces of entertainment.

And that is exactly how I look at sports stars now. Purely entertainment. I don’t expect them to be saints or even normal people. I’d be naive to expect the 20-year-old working class kid who’s getting £100,000 a week to hold onto the same worldview he had when he was 15. In fact I try to avoid the tabloid rubbish written about players. They get attacked by the media for such petty things, for sounding off on Twitter, having a night out or for daring to spend any of that money that’s being dumped in front of them by the truckload.

Their clubs are no better, they aggressively monitise their young stars. You are not a person, nor a player, but you are set of numbers. Number of followers, number of mentions, number of “impressions,” the number of jersey sales. You are an asset to be sold to the highest paying sponsor. It must be hard for a 18 year old to get their head around that. It’s no surprise these kids sometimes attempt to have “fun,” only to be condemned in the media.

Ultimately, just because someone excels at a sport, this should not make them any kind of example for the masses. By all means, follow them on Twitter, read the rubbish scrawled out about them by pea-brained journalists; but remember, just like Charles Barkley, they’re being engineered by executives. Respect them too, for what they’ve achieved, but keep in mind the mentality that got them there, and bear in mind: they won’t all be good guys.