“I am not a role model.”
That defiant declaration in 1993 by then-NBA star Charles Barkley sparked a wave of controversy. An ad designed to sell Nike sneakers broke open a cultural debate about the role of athletes and celebrities in society. Arguably, Barkley’s position was at least partially misunderstood.
“Parents should be role models,” he added in the commercial. “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Among Barkley’s critics was his competitor on the court, Karl Malone. He took to the pages (remember when journalism and commentary came only in print form?) of Sports Illustrated: “We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”
The debate continued on long after Barkley’s playing career ended.
“That commercial aired 26 years ago, and people are still discussing it,” Barkley’s longtime agent Marc Perman told Yahoo Sports in 2019. “His point was that we should be looking at other people as role models besides sports stars, and I think he still feels really strongly about that.
We agree … with both Barkley and Malone. Physical ability does not imply ethical exceptionalism. For the sake of their families and teammates, we hope professional athletes are good human beings. But their unique talents on the court (or field or rink or ring or chess board, for that matter) do not automatically make them worthy of emulation. On this score, Barkley is right.
Yet, with prominence comes influence. Any celebrity — be they an athlete, movie star, politician, or even a megachurch pastor — garners attention in ways that give their words and actions outsized influence on others. Here’s where Malone speaks the truth: Being in the public eye means that others will watch and then imitate what you do, whether you want them to or not.
The stakes only grow higher when public figures prominently reference their Christian faith. Most of us, through baptism, demonstrate to others our desire to spend our lives following Jesus. Few of us practice our discipleship on a stage where our successes and failures can be seen and judged by all.
In this edition of A Public Witness, we review the public careers of two well-known Christian figures in the public square — Pat Robertson and Francis Collins — who both announced their retirements in recent days. As they hang up their proverbial cleats, we consider how they both, for better or worse, served as role models to millions. We will explore the lessons they taught and the spirits with which they led.
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