Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick announced that he would plead guilty to federal dog fighting charges Monday and in the process made some dubious history. Vick will most certainly become the highest profile athlete in the history of American team sports to be incarcerated in his athletic prime. However, Vick may have accomplished a feat even more significant…and sad. In the wake of a horrendous summer for sports that featured dog fighting, blood doping, steroids more prominently than the games themselves, the Vick case may have finally convinced us that athletes have no business being considered role models. If this case does bring about the death of the sports role model, it would be a tragedy for us all.
At the dawn of professional athletics in America, professional athletes considered being a role model part of their job description. In 1909, Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner ordered a tobacco company to stop selling baseball cards bearing his likeness because he did not want to promote tobacco products to children. In the 1950s, Willie Mays famously played stickball with kids on the streets of New York. In the 1960s, many athletes felt compelled to use their celebrity to advance political causes, including Muhammad Ali, who forfeited more than three years of his athletic prime for his refusal support the Vietnam War by enlisting in United States Army when drafted. There was a time when it simply did not occur to a professional athlete that he had no responsibility to public for his behavior. My, how times have changed.
Today’s athlete has no desire to serve as a role model, appearing to feel more responsible to his mirror than society at large. The godfather of the anti-role model attitude currently entrenched in the minds of professional athletes was former National Basketball Association superstar Charles Barkley. Barkley famously announced “I am not a role model” in a Nike ad and then appeared to adopt the phrase as a life philosophy for the balance of his career. As an active player, Barkley was as truculent as he was charming, sometimes addressing the media with copious profanity and seemingly also willing to physically confront fans when accosted. Barkley has never been linked to criminal activity, but he has forcefully abdicated the responsibility that the prior generation of athletes felt was part of its obligation, to provide a positive example for those that watch them.
The generation of athletes after Barkley seemed to embrace and expand upon the Barkley Doctrine, the “I am not a role model” attitude. With the help of media and endorsers alike, many of the new class of professional athletes became very successful anti-heroes, popular because of their bad behavior rather than in spite of it. The leaders of this class were NBA stars Latrell Sprewell and Dennis Rodman. Sprewell, as a member of the Golden State Warriors, tried to choke his coach to death during a practice. The NBA suspended Sprewell and the Warriors voided his contract. However, the notoriety from the incident facilitated Sprewell’s move to the New York Knicks, where he became a fan favorite and pitchman for athletic apparel company And1. Dennis Rodman, despite being a one-dimensional role player on the basketball court, used his non-role model behavior (cross dressing, multiple piercing, and rock-star lifestyle) to launch a simultaneous career a best selling author and working TV and movie actor. Of course, Barkley is not entirely or even primarily to blame for the attitudes of the athletes that would follow him. Nevertheless, despite his protestations to the contrary, he did become a role model for a set of athletes that no longer felt responsible to the public.
Somewhere between Charles Barkley and Michael Vick, many of us came to accept that athletes are not competent to be role models, that their literally wide shoulders are not figuratively wide enough to bear the burden. Some believe that we as a society unfairly, even recklessly, burden the professional athlete with the responsibility of being a positive role model simply because he can run, jump or shoot. Maybe it is folly for us parents to want to use athletes to provide positive teachable moments for our children. Charles Barkley once said it was not his responsibility “to raise our kids.” This point is irrefutable, but yet begs a different question. Don’t we have a right to expect athletes to be part of the solution, not to be part of the problem?
The truth of the matter is that none of us get to opt out of obligation as role model. We are all role models to someone whether we like it or not. Someone is always watching our behavior while decide how to behave himself or herself. People in the public eye have an additional burden because they are watched by so many more people. Further, people naturally look to their more successful peers to find the blueprint for their own success. Therefore, regardless of one’s willingness or fitness to play this role model role, signing an athletic contract means signing up to be emulated as well. Yet, when we look at professional sports today, we get a muddled message to say the least.
By accepting a low standard of behavior from our athletes in return for a high level of performance, aren’t we simply surrendering our beloved sports to bad actors? By saying baseball players can’t be role models, we may be conceding that success and cheating should not mutually exclusive. “Cheating is simply part of the winning process in baseball, just ask Jason Giambi.” By saying basketball players can’t be role models, we may be conceding that choking your boss can make you more employable, not less. Just ask Latrell Sprewell. By saying football and hockey players can’t be role models, we may be conceding that even athletes that cause the death of others should not suffer a change in the upward trajectory of their careers. Both St. Louis Ram Leonard Little and the Ottawa Senator Dany Heatley have both terminated innocent lives after choosing to drive while intoxicated, yet both earned contract extensions after their incidents. We have nearly become desensitized to the amount of “police blotter” stories that now fill our sports pages to our collective detriment.
To many, the Michael Vick case is simply one more “crime and punishment” sports story, one more reason why athletes are only good for serving as “cautionary tales.” However, I hope this case takes us in an entirely different direction. I hope Vick case will end another era that should have never begun in the first place, the era in which we allow professional athletes to sell us short. I hope we start demanding that our athletes aspire to higher standards both on and off the field. Maybe the Michael Vick affair will cause us to put “role model” back into the job description of the professional athlete.