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Pro athletes as role models 

by Armon Gilliam
Former NBA Basketball Player
 
 
Americans favorite pass time is enjoying professional sports. The pro athletes that excel in professional sports, to a large extent, are viewed as heroic figures by sport enthusiast and in the mass media. With the elevated status given to pro athletes, comes an unwritten expectation that pro athletes will in turn be societal role models. As an 13 year N.B.A veteran that is very familiar with a slew of pro athletes from various sports, out of my rich experience I will say I am not sold on the notion that athletically gifted people that perform well in a sport are qualified to be role models. Granted, there are a good number of life lessons that people can draw from sports that will enable them to attain a greater measure of success in some area of their life. But going to the point of anointing and then entrusting pro athletes with the responsibility of serving as role models/behavioral exemplars, requires a leap of faith that I am not willing to take.  Furthermore, if you take into consideration that the mass media is obsessed with reporting negative stories about the very small percentage of pro athletes that act out some sort of misdeed(s), the whole process of making pro athletes societal role models needs to be reviewed.
 
Without question, Americans have a great appreciation for pro sports and a fascination with the pro athletes that play the sports. Let's face it, there is nothing like the exhilarating feelings and high entertainment value that sports enthusiast experience as they watch their beloved team(s)and players valiantly fight for victory in a hotly contested game. The star players on a given team that thrill adoring fans with spectacular plays, are highly celebrated and given heroic status. I understand how people can get caught up in the euphoria surrounding sports and engage in the over celebrate pro athletes because I witnessed it first hand. Yet the exhilarating feelings fans get from watching sports and the resulting over celebration of pro athletes sparks a process whereby pro sports stars are anointed to be role models that are expected to model exemplary human behavior. 
 
Contrary to popular opinion, a very accomplished pro athlete that enjoys a good measure of success in a given sport, is not always fitted with right set of human behavioral qualities that children should emulate. "A person whose behavior in a particular social setting is imitated by others, esp. by younger persons." This is Webster's definition of role model. The social setting that pro athletes behavior should rightfully be imitated in, is in the confines of the realm of sports. People need to make a clear distinction between the qualities that it takes to be a successful pro athlete, (working hard to develop and use ones God given athletic ability to perfect the required skill set needed to produce stellar performances in a sport), versus the list of qualities it takes to be a bona fide role model/behavioral exemplar. (being well spoken, character, good comportment, receiving a good education, being trustworthy, unselfishness, being a productive citizen, good manners and respectable values to name a few.) I do realize many people labor under the impression that the crucible or qualifier that makes one a role model/behavioral exemplar, is a good measure of athletic success in a pro sport. I have for good reason a dissenting opinion. Case and point, Ben Roethlisberger.
 
Ben has received a lot of negative media attention because of his off the field misconduct. As I read and listen to numerous reports about his behavior, the theme that he let down all those that look to him as a role model, seems to be constantly echoed. Yes, I think it was wrong on many levels for Ben, if the reports are true, to forcefully go for the touch down, so to speak, with two or maybe more women. Yet the following are the greater points: 1. Ben needs to take full responsibility for his actions, 2. Ben needs to be held accountable for his actions, 3. Ben, to my knowledge, never asked to be a role model for children, 4. It is a mistake for people to expect a complete stranger that wears a Steeler jersey, enjoyed a good measure of success as a pro athlete, won a couple of Super bowls, and throws a football well to be their children role model, 5. There are many Steelers that do great things in the Pittsburgh community and other communities that carry themselves as courtly gentlemen year in and year out. Therefore,
it is manifestly unfair for the media to overshadow the positive contributions of the overwhelming majority of Steeler players by disproportionately focusing on the misconduct of one.
 
The mass media is obsessed with reporting negativity. I know that is a very strong statement but it rings true. Consider this, thanks to the deluge of mass media reports the public is intimately acquainted with the lurid details of Ben's actions. Now compare the national and local media attention along with the level of intensity with which Ben's indiscretions received versus the very small amount of coverage that was given to the many honorable things his teammates have done for years. How much local or national media attention has been spent getting the public familiar with the intimate details of: 1. Charlie Batch's work in Homestead?, or 2. Max Stark's charitable work?, or 3. Hines Ward's community service?, or 4. The Jerome Bettis foundation?, or 5. Troy Polamalu's community work? The point is this, Ben's lewd behavior took place over a two day period
and lasted for maybe 45 minutes. Reports of Ben's behavior, however, were plastered in the headlines which resulted in the public being bombarded with the sordid details for months. On the other hand, the laudable work done by Ben's teammates has gone on for many years but the details are rarely reported. That is clearly not fair and balanced reporting.
 
The mass media should show a greater concern for the welfare of young and very impressionable children by not over exposing them to the flaws of someone they look up to. Children would be much better off if they were intimately acquainted with the details of pro athletes that model exemplary behavior which in turn they could imitate, get a sense of direction from and/or duplicate later in life.        
 
In the spirit of fair and balanced reporting, I will say the mass media has produced a good number of performance related reports and infrequent reports about the charitable activities of pro athletes. I still maintain that the scant reporting given to the positive or charitable actions of many pro athletes, pales in comparison to amount of coverage given the very small percentage of pro athletes that manifest human frailty or display inappropriate behavior.
 
If people are looking for an authentic role model for their children, they should turn to more reliable sources like: parents, a Pastor, a Rabbi or even the average Joe that consistently displays noble human qualities. Being a role model for children requires a specific set of qualities and there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with that title. Therefore, the label needs to be carefully assigned to a person(s) that veritably has the right qualities.  
 
Pro athletes that can on a high professional level: throw and run with a football, knock someone out with a violent punch to the frontal lope, catch a fly ball well or hit home runs and/or shoot and dunk a basketball well, should be celebrated for what they accomplish in their sport. To be clear, sports accomplishments are not in and of themselves the qualifiers and litmus test for being a role model. Having said that, there are a good number of pro athletes that perform well in their sport and posses the right set of human qualities needed to be role models. Sadly, their noteworthy charitable works coupled with their honorable human conduct are all to often ignored by the mass media.
 

Armon Gilliam (born May 28, 1964, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania) nicknamed "The Hammer", is an American professional basketball player that played 13 years in the NBA (1987-2000). He also played one season (2005-06) for the Pittsburgh Xplosion of the American Basketball Association.


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