I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Charles Barkley’s “I am not a role model” commercial that aired in 1993. In it, he says:
“I am not a role model.
I am not paid to be a role model.
I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court.
Parents should be role models.
Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
In theory, there is nothing wrong with what Barkley said. When an athlete signs a contract, whether it is a veteran’s minimum or a mammoth, 4-year $153 million franchise-changer, he or she earns that deal through their performance on the court (or field, or ice). They aren’t paid to act in a certain way in their private lives.
By the nature of sports fandom, however, we as fans often assign a larger-than-life character to some of our favorite athletes. We aspire to be like them both on and off the court, given their outsized influence in our lives.
This isn’t to say that athletes bear the responsibility to set an example for how their fans should behave — rather, they have the opportunity to make a positive impact. Many athletes would prefer not to take up this mantle; they conduct themselves in their private lives without regard for what kind of message it sends to the general public, and that is completely within their prerogative.
Luckily for our generation, there is a growing subset of athletes who have shattered this paradigm. They want to use their platform for good.
No one exemplifies this better than the newest Lakers star, LeBron James.
This past Monday, James opened up a school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio that specifically caters to the most disadvantaged youth in that community. He grew up in very similar circumstances to the students who will attend the I Promise School and feels compelled to use his success to provide a springboard for theirs.
“These kids should have the same opportunities as everyone else,” James said at the opening. “As adults, we have a responsibility to not let these kids down.”
James reiterated that message in an Uninterrupted video released Sunday: “For me to be in a position where I have the resources, I have the finance, I have the people, I have the structure, and I have the city around me, why not? Why not continue to do great things where you can help the youth?”
James is far from the only athlete, or even NBA player, who has contributed in a meaningful way towards his hometown, or to educational or other charitable causes. But as the biggest name in the league, his actions carry substantial weight. And the prominence of what he is doing matters.
Laker fans have been salivating in anticipation of this coming season, reveling in the prospect of having the best player in the game after five years of missing the playoffs and two years of not even having an All-Star. From a strictly basketball perspective, we’re incredibly lucky to see LeBron wear purple and gold.
From a non-basketball perspective, we’re perhaps even more fortunate to have LeBron James be the face of this franchise for the foreseeable future. This is a player who has embraced his popularity to challenge the status quo for minorities and underprivileged people in this country. He has publicly berated the President of the United States for his divisive rhetoric. His biggest public gaffe was not personally informing his employer that he would be changing teams and instead announcing it in a television special, a special that nonetheless generated $6 million for charity.
Los Angeles fans have been treated to sports greats for years, but LeBron is a standout even within that rarefied air. There’s no need to gloss over elements of his personal history while rooting for him. You can appreciate his work ethic and his philanthropy, his court vision and his voice, all in one package.
The Lakers have an enormous reach. The team just experienced its third-highest online sales day on Tuesday after releasing its new-look Showtime jerseys . Think about all those little kids in no. 23 Laker jerseys, looking up to LeBron James, wanting to not only pass like him, but maybe even help their communities like him.
Look no further than LeBron himself for the power of a positive example. In his first public statements about joining the Lakers, James said that he looked up to President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson. But it wasn’t just that he wanted to get on the break like Magic — LeBron has also made clear his admiration for Magic’s business and philanthropic success. That may even be part of why LeBron chose to join the Lakers for the next phase of his basketball career.
The Lakers did not sign LeBron James to be a role model. Like Charles Barkley 25 years ago, this is not what he is being paid to do. But even as James wreaks havoc on a basketball court, he is working to cause equal disruption to the inequities he sees off the court. He is literally helping to raise a generation of children in his hometown.
The Laker franchise is lucky to James on its team for the next three years (or more). The city of Los Angeles is lucky that James’ platform extends well beyond Staples Center.