The Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup, and NBA Championship are broadcast to tens and hundreds of millions of people around the world. In fact, they are watched by many times more viewers than each sport has fans, because the games have become as much celebrity and cultural celebrations as sporting events. In fact, it can be argued quite easily that since at least the 1990’s they have become much more the former than the latter. The professional sports industry, if we can somewhat vaguely construe it as some sort of cultural institution, has become way more than organized athletics. Some of the evidence for this is the fact that sports celebrities today enjoy fame and recognition (not to mention vast sums of money) out of all proportion to the active fan base of their team and sport. That is, there are only so many L.A. Laker fans, but everyone has heard of Kobe Bryant, and everyone knows that he is among the best basketball players today – even if all they know about basketball is that Kobe plays it.
The fame game
rom the sports world and into general cultural consciousness have come a slew of players from various sports, fueled by money and media attention; and by dint of the money and the attention, the more charismatic and motivated of these rich athletes segue into the big bucks Hollywood-New York media axis. There they join their counterparts from TV, movies, the music biz, Broadway, the New York Times bestseller list, and all the other profit centers of the multimedia celebritainment universe.
This is the cover photo pool for People and Us and National Enquirer, and sports stars are now an accepted and undifferentiated component of it; they have been absorbed. Since they have achieved the ultimate post-modern status, of being famous for being famous, they are in the pool, like it or not, and this is the same pool from which the mainstream media fishes out its hip representatives of modern lifestyles. Perhaps we should call them “rockin’ role models” so as to distinguish them from those of the bygone eras, such as, oh, your mom, dad, pastor, or professor, who, of course, were bigots and hypocrites and ate veal and may have even smoked!
Roles and responsibilities
These scattershot observations seem to tap dance around the point because, in fact, it takes a whole lot more complicated and thoroughgoing thinking than has been displayed here thus far to contend with the issue of “celebrity role models” in Third Millennium A.D. America. Specifically, for instance, what are the “role model” responsibilities of celebrities, particularly sports stars?
In televised Sunday (and Monday, and sometimes Thursday and Saturday) games both important and pointless, we see the best and the worst of the National Football League in action. After throwing a winning touchdown pass in the closing moments, many an excited quarterback has offered up an enthusiastic, obviously heartfelt, “Thank you, Jesus!” shouted to a national, even worldwide, audience. Many Christian athletes are positive, inspirational forces in their families, teams, and communities, and, given the opportunity to communicate to the entire world during the media-saturated weeks of playoffs culminating with the Super Bowl, generally comport themselves with grace, style, humility, and sincerity.
Walking the talk
These are solid fellows, and it’s not just about being Christian. Steve Martinovich, the atheist editor of the political website known as Enter Stage Right, found much to commend in believer Kurt Warner following Super Bowl XXXIV back in 2000, and did so quite publicly in a widely read editorial that reverberated among “unbelievers” for several years.
Warner’s story, in Martinovich’s synopsis, is about walking what you talk, about living your principles. That is a good model for any young person to see, whether the object of their attention is Christian or atheist. In fact, I would not hesitate to describe Martinovich himself as a good role model to other atheists, in that some of them find it very difficult to put aside their acidic disdain, their often undisguised contempt, for Christians and Christianity.
Role models are drafted
Charles Barkley, recently retired basketball star and a Republican, famously remarked that he was most certainly not a role model, but a basketball player. I found much to identify with in his further remarks on the subject, the gist of which was that he neither sought nor made use of the soapbox that his fame brought him. Erroneously, however, Barkley equated being a role model with having to take some sort of specific action vis-à-vis young people, like a public service commercial against smoking or a “Special Olympics”-style basketball camp.
By the definition we are using now, volition is unnecessary to one’s status as a role model. The media anoints you with fame and gives you access to the airwaves. And that, Mr. Barkley, makes you a role model.
In just the past few years, athletes including footballers Rae Carruthers and Ray Lewis, baseballers Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco, and basketballers Allen Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse have been implicated in drug dealing, money laundering, assault, grand theft, and about half a dozen murders. Along with others of the “protocriminal element” – a not insignificant fraction of the whole, as documented in a mid-1990’s book about convicted felons in professional sports, Pros & Cons – these wealthy, probably spoiled, and certainly insulated pro jocks have been elevated to a special station in American cultural life. Certainly they know this.
Whether or not these “stars” even contemplate the nature of their influence on young people, in and out of sports programs, is mostly unknown; perhaps they never wanted to be role models, and feel no responsibility for the broken hearts and dreams of their fans. But they are in the headlines and in the public eye nonetheless, and people will draw their own conclusions about these men, their guilt or innocence, and their essential characters. It’s not like they can avoid being caught doing no-no’s, given that “the public eye” is bigger than ever, with paparazzi, video surveillance cameras, news crews, gossip-show stringers, and stalkers with cellphone cameras snagging images 24/7.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you want the role model designation or not. Once you rise high enough above the rest of the crowd, in whatever endeavor or business or art or craft, your influence will begin to grow, and people will begin to point you out and ask your opinion and value your insights – even (sometimes, it seems, particularly) if you’re a nitwit. Perhaps, if you’re a star running back in the NFL, you are not responsible for the moral education of the nation’s youth. But kids will emulate those they admire and, like it or not, it might be you.
As an adult, you are always responsible for your own actions, and part of being an adult is acting right whether or not the nightclub’s video security system is targeting you. If you’re a public figure, you should certainly know by now that you must comport yourself in a dignified manner, in both the private and public spheres of your life. Of course, with the mega-famous, the latter has just about completely subsumed the former.
Honest, principled, congruent people act the same way in both spheres, regardless of who is watching. And they do not mind being called role models, either. You may draw your own conclusions about people who do.