Athlete as model

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Charles Barkley was wrong. Athletes are role models and their actions can affect the kids who adore them. I am hoping that Mr. Barkley meant to say that in an era where athletes are celebrities and are no longer afforded a private life, that they must carry their on stage persona until well hidden from the public light.

Years ago, when people learned about their sports from newspapers and when athletes still lived and worked in their communities, it was understood that the ball player was just another working guy who lived down the block. But times change and the athlete morphed into a rock star-actor-celebrity whose every move would be tracked by 24 hour cable channels, internet videos and assorted paparazzi. They became god-like targets to be brought down to earth by anybody with a camera.

But explain that to a 7 year old boy. That age hasn’t changed much from a generation ago. They worship their favorite team and sleep in the pajamas if its star. They wear jerseys in backyard games and pretend to be the pitcher or quarterback or point guard. They listen to after game interviews and know that their favorite player is talking to them alone. Explain to that child why his idol is pictured on the front page being arrested for drugs, or drunk driving or for beating up a spouse. I am certain that our heroes of yesteryear had similar run-ins with the law, but we as fans were shielded from it. We didn’t know and frankly, we didn’t care. But today everybody knows, since the elite athlete lives his life under a microscope. By now, you would have thought that athletes would have caught on. Though they carry the invincibility of youth, they get hurt on the field of play, they get hurt when they drink and drive, they get hurt when their image is fouled.

Some things don’t matter. The parents of Reggie Bush have an unusual lease agreement? A parent doesn’t need to explain rental agreements and buy-back options to a second grader.

Some things do. Josh Hancock dies because he was drunk and the parent needs to explain why a favorite player isn’t going to be playing anymore. It’s hard to list Tony La Russa as an example to always listen and follow your little league coach.

So I am of two minds when it comes to Derek Fisher, whose daughter has retinoblastoma. There is no justice when a child gets sick. It isn’t fair, right or explainable. Yet here is a gentleman who stands in front of the public and uses the bully pulpit of athlete celebrity for good. I wish that he never had to be in that position, but I am thankful that he has the courage and fortitude to be a role model. Charles Barkley should take note.

I wish Tatum a speedy recovery and a life filled with health and happiness. She is most fortunate to begin with loving parents. And I wish Mr. Fisher an easy night’s sleep one day soon. One day when he doesn’t have to worry about his daughter, perhaps when she’s forty.

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