Rockin' role models

By Erik Jay
web posted February 7, 2000

I am not the biggest sports fan in the world, although I do watch the last few weeks of the NFL regular season and follow the diminishing number of winning teams into the playoffs. Then I watch the conference champs go at it in the Super Bowl, which itself has been anticlimactic more often than exciting. But I watch it, and despite many lopsided games and more than a few boring ones, I always enjoy it, as do literally hundreds of millions of people around the world. And that's because it has always been as much a cultural as a sporting event; it can be argued quite easily that in the late 1990's it has become much more the former than the latter.

Professional sports itself, if we can somewhat vaguely construe it as some sort of cultural institution, has become much 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 Chicago Bulls fans, but by now everyone has heard of Michael Jordan, and everyone knows that he is the best basketball player of his era, perhaps any era -- even if all they know about basketball is that Michael Jordan plays it.

From 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 merge into the big bucks Hollywood-New York media universe. There they join the celebrities du jour from TV, movies, the music biz, Broadway, the New York Times bestseller list, and all the other profit centers of the overwhelmingly liberal multimedia elites. This is the talent 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. I suppose you could 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.

These scattershot observations seem to tap dance around the point because, in fact, it takes a whole lot more complicated and thoroughgoing thinking than I've been doing so far to contend with the issue of "celebrity role models" in America, A.D. 2000. And I'm not certain that I am up to the task; research, analysis, and investigative reporting are not my shtick; they're not shtick at all, as a matter of fact, which is why they remain absent from my curriculum vitae. But I do read voraciously (30 hours a week minimum); I correspond with folks a lot more erudite, intelligent, and accomplished than I am; I spend a lot of time challenging my own assumptions, presumptions, and predilections; and, most importantly, I developed early in my writing career a style of "muscular, cerebral overwriting," according to my first literary mentor, teacher Barney Tanner, that makes people think I know what I'm talking about. I do keep a sense of humor about life, and do not take myself too seriously, which decently balances out my tendency to be a cantankerous know-it-all.

In other words, I really am made to be a columnist. I don't have to do the research, or even necessarily cite the researchers; I'll just tell you, "The world is made of snow!" Prove me wrong if you like. I will just declaim, thank you. And today, with all of this build-up about to be put to some purpose, I declaim on role models.

Specifically, what about the "role model" responsibilities of celebrities, particularly sports stars? In the last month, we have seen the best and the worst of the National Football League in action. St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner caps a Cinderella season, in which he threw the second-most touchdown passes ever, with a Super Bowl win and an enthusiastic, obviously heartfelt "Thank you, Jesus!" shouted to a worldwide audience; the losing quarterback, Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans, who played with great intensity and took the game all the way down to the last play only to fall inches short, is also a committed Christian man. Both of these 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 week culminating with the Super Bowl, comported themselves with grace, style, humility, and sincerity.

These are solid fellows, and it's not just about being Christian; Steve Martinovich, the atheist editor of the conservative/libertarian web site known as Enter Stage Right (www.enterstageright.com), found much to commend in Kurt Warner following Super Bowl XXXIV, and did so quite publicly in a recent editorial. 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, Muslim, 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 (some Objectivists I know, for example) find it very difficult to put aside their acidic disdain, their often undisguised contempt, for Christians and Christianity. Inasmuch as I often feel absolutely alone, snubbed by both sides, as a self-described "Christian libertarian", I am committed to establishing working alliances among all the anti-statist and pro-liberty forces, and Martinovich's editorial helps toward that goal.

Charles Barkley, recently retired basketball star and a conservative Republican, famously remarked that he was most certainly not a role model; he was 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-a-vis young people, like a public service commercial against smoking or a "Special Olympics"-style basketball camp.

By the definition we are using today, volition is unnecessary to one's status as a role model. The media anoints you with fame and gives you access to the airwaves; what are you going to do with it? Like it or not, Mr. Barkley, you were a pretty good role model for kids who want to grow up to be registered Republicans and death-penalty supporters; his statement that, were he elected governor of Arizona, he would have "death week, not Death Row" endeared him to the right-wing law and order constituency and had an impact way beyond the sports pages. And that, Mr. Barkley, makes you a role model.

Bam Morris, Fred Lane, Rae Carruthers, and Ray Lewis are NFL role models, too, just not particularly positive ones. Morris and Lane were recently implicated in drug dealing and money laundering; Carruthers is accused of murdering his estranged, pregnant girlfriend; and Lewis is in the headlines this very moment, charged with stabbing two men to death following a Super Bowl party in a swanky Atlanta club. Along with others of the "protocriminal element" -- a not insignificant fraction of the whole, as documented in a mid-90's book about convicted felons in professional sports, "Pros & Cons" -- these four wealthy, possibly spoiled, and certainly pampered pro jocks have been elevated to a special station in American cultural life. Whether or not they even contemplated the nature of their influence on young people, in and out of sports programs, is not known; 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 nonetheless, and people will draw their own conclusions about these men, their guilt or innocence, their essential characters.

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. You are, however, always responsible for your own actions, for developing and maintaining good character, for being honest and forthright and philosophically congruent throughout the private and public spheres of your life.

Honest, principled, congruent people do not mind being called role models. You may draw your own conclusions about people who do.

Erik Jay is the first writer in some time to have two articles appear in ESR in one week.

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