Should We Expect Star Athletes to be More Socially Responsible?
An ESPN.com headline yesterday directed me to a story about Kobe Bryant and the video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” but from a decidedly different point of view. Interviewed for the piece was Todd Walker, a youth football coach in northern California who also happens to work at a funeral home. In the context of an urban gun culture that claims the lives of far too many young people, Walker argued it’s irresponsible for Bryant to actively promote a game that Walker believes glorifies gunplay.
And with that, I had to ask myself: Just how socially responsible should we expect our athletes, and by extension entertainment celebrities, to be?
On the one hand, it could be argued that Bryant is just another person, allowed to think, speak, and behave as freely as any of us. Friends of mine let the world of Facebook know they’re spending all night playing Black Ops, so why can’t Kobe do the same? If those same friends were told they could make a few bucks promoting the game, they’d do it in a heartbeat. So why shouldn’t Bryant be given the same opportunity?
Critics like Walker contend that as a celebrity who is emulated by fans young and old, Bryant has a responsibility to set a good example. Happily supporting a game that focuses on guns and death effectively romanticizes the violence that plagues the very inner cities many of his fans populate. Opponents add that while people spend money on tickets and merchandise, ultimately benefiting Bryant, he is promoting a violent culture which claims the lives of those very same fans.
It’s been 17 years since Charles Barkley’s famous Nike commercial, which boldly opened, “I am not a role model.” In the 30-second, black-and-white spot, Barkley added, “Parents should be role models,” then ended with the statement, “Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Now Barkley made a career of being his own, speaking his mind with quips like, “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.” And Nike has evolved into a cultural icon with provocative and artistic 30- and 60-second features. But none has sparked a debate like the Barkley spot, a debate that resurfaces again and again with stories like Bryant’s.
Do fans, particularly young fans, really emulate their sports and entertainment figures? Just because we are swayed to buy a pair of Air Jordans because Michael Jordan used them to soar to new heights, does that mean we’re going to gamble just like he did? We copied his tongue-wagging, his on-court swagger, but will we follow his off-court example?
The answer is no, but that doesn’t mean he, Barkley, or Bryant are free and clear to do whatever they want.
David Gelman discussed the Barkley commercial and the broader issue of social responsibility in Newsweek shortly after the spot debuted in 1993. Social science research, he said, demonstrates that children rarely adopt the behaviors of their sports role models. Gary Alan Fine, then the head of the sociology department at the University of Georgia, said in the article that children are “fairly sophisticated by the time they reach the preadolescent years,” and so they aren’t overly swayed by celebrities.
Interestingly, the impact of a celebrity’s missteps is far greater for adults. Children are far more likely to excuse a popular figure’s mistakes by simply dismissing the star and adopting a new one, a sort of free agency of celebrity. Adults, on the other hand, let the disappointment linger. In Gelman’s article, Dr. Gerald Dabbs, then the spokesperson for the New York Council for Child Psychiatry, recalled Paul Reubens’ (Pee-Wee Herman) arrest for indecent exposure in 1991. Though the incident received considerable national media attention, not a single child asked Dabbs about the star’s arrest. The only conversations on the subject were broached by parents.
I experienced a similarly unexpected dichotomy of sensitivity in my own sports career. Serving as general manager for a new minor league baseball team, the team name harkened back to a natural disaster that changed the host city’s history. In a sponsorship meeting with four representatives of a major regional bank, one of the executives was concerned about PR backlash from the team’s name… but it wasn’t the same executive that had lived through the disaster. The survivor had moved on, while his colleague dwelled not on personal impact, but concern over potential sensitivities.
So does this absolve today’s sports superstars of public responsibility? Not so fast. NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone, then a perennial all-star, wrote to Barkley in a column for Sports Illustrated, “Charles… I don’t think it’s your decision to make. 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.” Gelman similarly observed, “Celebrities like Barkley may decline the honor, but their high visibility obliges them to behave with at least an awareness that they are being watched by millions.”
As an exec who has spent years handling team and league PR, I tend to see things from that side of the table. Whether a star acknowledges any sort of responsibility to his or her fans, I personally find it discouraging that they wouldn’t be cognizant of the strategic benefits of not behaving like a self-indulgent child. Just months after superstar Gilbert Arenas was suspended for half of the season because of gun-related charges, why would Bryant even risk the negative imagery? On top of that, why would his advisors and entourage, who are charged with the well-being of his image, allow him to do so? I can’t imagine the financial benefits are so outrageous so as to be worth the risk. So was it ignorance? A “bigger than the game” bravado? I wish I could explain it.
It’s this behavior that has fans at times decrying the demeanor of star athletes. It’s not so much a celebrity spoiling his or her opportunity and talents by getting involved in a self-destructive habit like drugs. It’s the distance between fan and athlete—physical, socio-economic, and emotional—that riles the public even more. The common mantra is that fans spend sums of money just to be able to experience a game in person or buy a jersey of their favorite player, yet athletes and celebrities pay mere lip service to their fans, if that. Is it hypocrisy or mere ignorance that led Lou Whitaker, showing up at union meeting during the 1994 baseball strike which cancelled the World Series in a limousine, to declare, “I’m rich. What am I supposed to do, hide it?” New York Post writer Phil Mushnick was equally pointed in his criticism after Barkley’s commercial: “Funny, how big shots accept all the trappings of role modeldom–especially the residual commercial cash–before they renounce their broader responsibilities to society.”
To be clear, I’m not asking every athlete and celebrity to be like Tim Wakefield, an eight-time nominee and 2010 winner of Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award for his community efforts. To be fair, it seems no degree of good works goes without criticism. Tiger Woods (long before he turned his own world upside down) was publicly criticized for not doing enough for the community. This despite the three charitable organizations founded by Woods collecting nearly $100 million over three years recently. Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi, even Yao Ming have been ranked among The Giving Back 30, a list of top celebrity charitable benefactors, but each has suffered far more in the PR sector for their own failures, real or implied.
Charity rarely resonates for long, not with the public’s salacious appetite for scandal. Good works get a nice little feature from time to time on “SportsCenter,” and the Roberto Clemente Award makes for a lovely photo op for Major League Baseball and the award’s sponsor, Chevrolet. Scandal, legal troubles, police blotters… these drive the news cycle.
And so, to get back to the original question, how socially responsible should today’s athletes and celebrities be? We really don’t expect much. In fact, in light of behavior that’s oftentimes reported, we have come to expect the negative. From Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Pete Rose, our sports heroes have always been fallible and human, notwithstanding their sometimes superhuman efforts during games.
It’s not surprising that Bryant is promoting Black Ops. It also wouldn’t be shocking if he didn’t think it’s a big deal to gleefully brandish a personalized automatic weapon, especially if he cashed a check for his appearance. But the same day the article appeared on ESPN.com, Southern Miss officials reported that one of three football players shot over the weekend is paralyzed from the waist down, and another can’t speak because the gunshot tore through his vocal cords. News like this puts Bryant’s actions in a decidedly selfish context.
Of course, Walker knows all too well about similar scenes, with younger victims and graver circumstances. That’s why, in yesterday’s article, he invited Bryant to tour the funeral home where Walker works, so he can show the NBA star some of the results of casual gunplay. “He damned sure needs to see it,” Walker was quoted as saying.
Would we like more social responsibility? Perhaps, but even then, we would look at it a little suspiciously. If I were to advise an athlete right now, my advice would be to be personally responsible, first and foremost. Recognize the context of your actions, along with their scope and reach. I don’t ask for athletes to go out of their way to do positive things, because they’re already offering us so much. After all, sport is a billion dollar business because of the games themselves, the incredible achievements. They lift us. In sports we can escape and indulge, forge bonds and sometimes find ourselves.
So I’m not asking for more social responsibility from athletes. Just less personal ignorance.