It was an ugly week in the world of sports. Lance Armstrong, the all-American cancer survivor who set the record in cycling for most Tour De France championships, admitted in an Oprah Winfrey interview that he achieved his victories by doping. Manti Te'o, a nationwide icon for the courage he displayed in playing after the same day death of his grandmother and girlfriend, admits that the girlfriend was all a hoax. An NFL player is arrested at an airport for trying to take a concealed weapon on a plane. Fallout continues from the autopsy report demonstrating that Junior Seau died as a result of multiple concussions leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- which leads to depression and potential suicide. The sports page read much more like the crime beat or business section of a newspaper due to the drumbeat of off-field problems.
This all raises the question as to whether it is appropriate to look to athletic figures as role models and whether they should be held up to circumspect levels of conduct. With the constant chronicling of every athletic misbehavior, are athletes the right symbols?
My friend, former NBA superstar and current television analyst Charles Barkley is clear that the answer is a resounding no.. He believes that athletes are not the figures that children should be emulating. He feels that it is parents who have the obligation and responsibility to be role models. He believes players have a duty to give peak performance on the court, and that is it. I have built a 40-year career in representation around the belief that athletes are role models and can trigger imitative behavior. Who is right?
Information is delivered to the public in a greatly enhanced and expanded way in this era -- multiple platforms providing 24-hour content. The celebrity-making machine with its focus on interesting personalities brings these people into our living rooms daily. Satellite television means exponentially more games broadcast, more analysis, more focus on personality than previously imagined. That television monitor acts as a magnifying glass, which produces athletic performance and personality in larger than life detail. It is inescapable. Athletes will be figures of admiration and emulation in this sports obsessed society. Parents have a critical role to play in shaping their children's values and behavior. The unfortunate truth is that many families have absent parents or individuals incapable of providing sound guidance. Young people will look to athletes whether we wish them to or not.
Athletes that still play at a competitive level after high school are really participants in the entertainment business. Collegiate players may not be paid, but they and their professional brethren play for colleges or professional organizations that are dependent on public support. Sports are not food on the table or shelter or transportation -- all critical needs for survival. It is a discretionary entertainment business competing for fan viewership, ticket sales, and other revenue streams with other sports, movies, HBO, video games, outdoor recreation, Walt Disney World and every other form of entertainment.
If fans become disillusioned by athletic behavior -- force-fed negative incidents or too many contract squabbles or destructive CBA deadlocks -- they can easily turn their attention elsewhere. A professional player who doesn't want to sign autographs, graciously grant press interviews, or comport themselves publicly within acceptable norms of behavior has an alternative -- he can play on a sandlot. No one will criticize, judge or have any expectations. They also will not be paid huge sums for playing or endorsements or have any of the fame or exalted lifestyle that ensues.
I have asked athletes to envision themselves as role models and responsible members of the communities that helped build and shape them. This does not assume they will at every moment be behaviorally correct, we all make mistakes and mature and grow from them. But over 120 of our clients established scholarship funds or retrofitted athletic equipment or helped their church or Boys and Girls Club at the community they grow up in. They retrace their roots.
A number of players like Troy Aikman and Eric Karros at UCLA, Edgerrin James at U of Miami, Kerry Collins at Penn State, have endowed scholarships at their colleges -- setting an example for younger players and staying linked to that college community. At the professional level, we asked that athletes find a cause near to them to have a foundation that could help. They enlisted leading business, political and community leaders to assist.
Years ago, San Diego placekicker Rolf Benirschke started "Kicks For Critters" to raise funds and awareness for endangered species research at the San Diego Zoo. It had a poster/pledge card component, which was the genesis for many later donations for individual achievement programs. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas remedied childhood reading problems with his "Third and Long" program in Kansas City. Steve Young has a "Forever Young Foundation" to aid children's charities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Warren Moon's Crescent Moon Foundation operated in Houston, Minneapolis, Seattle and Southern California to fund college scholarships for needy high school students.
What all these athletes were modeling was their heart, initiative and the ability for all of us to improve our communities and tackle problems. They are not modeling the chance for millions of young people to be professional athletes -- that is only a gateway for the few. But when heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis said on a public service announcement that "Real Men Don't Hit Women" he made a great contribution to young people's perception of what is embodied in true masculinity. Disaffected teenagers may tune out authority figures -- parents, teachers, and commercial messages. A superstar athlete can permeate that perceptual screen to deliver a message of inspiration and hope.
This country needs role models and athletes have both an incredible opportunity and responsibility to use their power for good.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.
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