By Ryan Divish
"I am not a role model," Charles Barkley said with a sneer. "I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models."
It was almost 10 years since that infamous Nike commercial aired on television and sparked a controversy.
Should athletes and entertainers be role models?
Some people say no. Role models should be people you can talk to, reach out to when you are in need - a person who is part of your immediate life. People like parents, relatives, coaches or teachers.
Others say, hell yes, they are role models. Being in the spotlight and a sports or entertainment star makes you a role model regardless of choice. If people are paying to see you play and perform, then you have a responsibility to the consumer to be whatever they ask.
It's a double-edged sword that athletes and entertainers are faced with. Should they act in a certain way because the public demands it?
Let's be real honest here. Everyone has heroes growing up. They might not be considered role models but they are people that we would like to emulate our lives after. How many kids in America dreamt of following the footsteps of Jerry Rice, Ken Griffey Jr. or Michael Jordan?
We wanted our lives to be just like theirs because it all seems so great. The games, the fans, the money, it seems like a perfect life.
But how much of that life do we actually, truly know about. We have perceived notions of what our heroes' lives are like, or at least should be like. But not many people really know what their lives out of the spotlight are like. We aren't there after the games, at their home or in the supermarket with them.
We only know what they want us to know. The biggest joke of all is when television cameras follow people around to get a look at their supposed real life. Television cameras have a funny way of changing how people act even in their meaningless day-to-day routines. Just look at the people on the Real World. Do you think they analyze every little detail of a relationship and try to come up with profound statements when a camera isn't on them? Nope, they are morons just like the rest of us.
Regardless of which side of the argument you fall, athletes and entertainers are still considered by many to be role models by default. And many do nothing to dispute that notion.
The perfect example would be Kobe Bryant. The Lakers star might not have asked to not be a role model, but he is one. And to his credit, he has embraced it. He has patterned his career after his hero and millions of kids' ultimate role model, Michael Jordan.
Everything Kobe does bears a striking resemblance to Jordan. He has emulated Jordan from his moves on the court, to the way he carries himself off the court. Kobe even sounds like Michael when he talks.
Some could joke that Kobe even copied Michael's infidelity.
But where Kobe and Jordan are most alike is in the public persona that they try to maintain. For the most part, the things we know about Kobe or Michael are the things they want us to know. We see the commercials with the kids, the donations to charities, the games and awards and public appearances. That isn't their real life. That's about one one-hundredth of their real life.
During his career and even now, Jordan has maintained an almost teflon-like image, in that nothing bad could stick to him. Sure rumors of gambling problems and marital problems arose during his career, but they stayed rumors.
It was only until his wife filed for divorce and a lawsuit from Jordan's alleged mistress did we see that all was not perfect in Jordan-World.
Kobe tried to do the same. He had the beautiful wife and precious daughter, the cultured upbringing and the squeeky-clean image. He gives off the aura of an intelligent person, who has a great life with or without basketball. He was the new Jordan, the new poster-boy NBA star. He embraced it and the NBA marketers pushed it - you want a role model in the NBA, Kobe is it.
He was shown as the golden boy in a league filled with self-embraced thugs and bad boys.
But as we have seen, some of the shine has faded on the golden boy.
The poster boy has been reduced to mugshots for sexual assault. Kobe has now joined the consortium of so-called NBA criminals including Allen Iverson, Damon Stoudamire and Chris Webber, who have all been charged with felonies.
And around the sports world, there was a feeling of shock and disbelief. "Kobe couldn't possibly have done this," people said. "Kobe isn't like this," others cried.
Really? Tell us what he's really like because most of us have no idea.
It's ludicrous for people, especially sports news anchors and sportswriters, who aren't closely associated with Bryant to say, "this doesn't sound like something Kobe would do."
How can they possibly know what Kobe would or wouldn't do? It's already been proven that he went farther than most people figured by admitting that he'd committed adultery.
Now the NBA's prime example of a role model is going through an identity crisis. The life that took years to build and portray as perfect is now anything but.
In a tearful press conference, Kobe apologized saying he was a just a man who had a mistake. It was the first time that people were offered a glimpse into the life Kobe leads away from the court and the cameras.
We finally saw Kobe as a human being - flesh and blood, rather than glamour and glitz all packaged, perfected and presented for us to see.
It may sound strange, but Kobe was more of a role model in that press conference than he ever was before that. Because true role models are humans just like us. People who are just as prone to mistakes and misguidance as we are. Obviously, adultery and infidelity aren't something we look for in role models. But the ability to stand up and admit you've made a mistake is.
Maybe Barkley was right after all. In people's search to find that perfect role model, we have mistaken the idea of money, fame and a perceived perfect life as what our criteria when things like honesty, ambition, discipline and dignity can be found in the people we see everyday.