(The following is adapted from a Hillsdale College online lecture delivered in Nashville, Tenn., on Aug. 19, 2020.)
Nearly 30 years ago, in a 1993 Nike commercial, professional basketball legend Charles Barkley fired the first shot at the “role model” concept popularized by Columbia University sociologist Robert K. Merton in the aftermath of the 1960s counterculture movement.
“I am not a role model,” Barkley proclaimed in the half-minute spot. “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Barkley’s words landed with a force every bit the equal of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem knee 23 years later.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle defended Barkley, while Barkley’s fellow NBA superstar Karl Malone criticized him in Sports Illustrated. Leading news magazines, including Time and Newsweek, published articles exploring the controversy. Newspaper columnists from coast to coast—on and off the sports pages – also weighed in. The topic still sparks debate today.
Of the many phrases and concepts Merton coined – including “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “unintended consequences” – “role model” has had the most impact. On the surface, the argument that young people tend to model their behavior after high-profile, successful adults is harmless.
However, in retrospect, the elevation of athletes and other celebrities as primary figures in the formation of behavioral norms for young people helped create the conditions that are powering the destructive Black Lives Matter movement today.
Merton’s role model concept undercuts the importance of parents and nuclear families. That was the point of Barkley’s criticism. Feminists and other progressive critics of America’s “patriarchal” society – including the Black Lives Matter movement, whose Marxist-influenced statement of purpose opposes “the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” – have used Merton’s concept to great effect.
Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, Farrah Fawcett, Barbara Streisand, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye, and Burt Reynolds infringed on territory primarily reserved for mom, dad, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and teachers.
Technology has helped advance the process, diminishing the influence of traditional authority figures and strengthening the reach of celebrities. Kids shut their bedroom doors, turn on their televisions, laptops, and game consoles, plug in earbuds, open social media apps, and disappear into a world far removed from mom and dad. With a mere push of a button they tune out the worldview of their families and tune in the worldview of athlete LeBron James, actress Lena Dunham, rapper Snoop Dogg, social media race-baiter Shaun King and others like them.
On top of all this, we now see America’s enemies, particularly China, using these modern role models to promote racial division and destabilize our country – with those on the political Left as their accomplices. Today, they have coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement to push America toward a level of racial dysfunction and animus not experienced since the Civil War.
It’s fitting that Charles Barkley fired the first shot against this trend, because American sports have become the Gettysburg of what some have called our “cold civil war.” And if China and the Left complete their radicalization of sports, our nation may never recover.
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• Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.
Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter-turned-statesman, spoke those words in an effort to heal the country he came to lead after spending a quarter century incarcerated for opposing apartheid. Mandela embraced sports’ power to bridge racial divides, looking on athletic competition as a kind of antibiotic for racial animus and discrimination. South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup and Mandela’s presentation of the Webb Ellis Cup to team captain Francois Pienaar stand as an iconic symbol of unity in post-apartheid South Africa. Clint Eastwood directed a movie, Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, that memorialized the importance of the moment. It bears re-watching today.
Since sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and boxer Joe Louis scored a first-round knockout over German heavyweight Max Schmeling in 1938, sports have served as a powerful racial unifier in America as well. The victories earned by Owens and Louis punctured Hitler’s Aryan superiority myth, unified black and white Americans in celebration, and established Owens and Louis as this country’s first black national heroes.
Owens and Louis laid the foundation for Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey’s partnership with Jackie Robinson to integrate our national pastime, Major League Baseball, a decade later. Robinson’s successful integration of baseball, in turn, inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.
Indeed, Barack Obama, America’s first black president – the world’s first black leader of a predominantly white country – credited Robinson’s career for his own political rise. “There’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here,” Obama said in January 2017, while hosting the world champion Chicago Cubs at the White House. He continued:
“There’s a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks, and then the city being able to come together and work together in one spirit. Sometimes it’s just a matter of us being able to escape and relax from the difficulties of our days, but sometimes it also speaks to something better in us. And when you see this group of folks of different shades and different backgrounds, and coming from different communities and neighborhoods all across the country, and then playing as one team and playing the right way, and celebrating each other and being joyous in that, that tells us a little something about what America is and what America can be.”
Yes, America is a shining example of sports’ transformative power. The games we play, the games at the center of our social behavior, combine with our founding principles to enhance the American experience.
America’s enemies know this, which is why the culture war has moved to our arenas and stadiums. Sports are now in the same crosshairs as our Founding Fathers, under attack for past racial sins and unappreciated for their vital role in cultivating racial unity. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but by writing the Declaration of Independence he made the emancipation of slaves inevitable. American sports were once segregated, but no American industry can match sports’ empowerment of black men.
For more, go to https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/american-sports-letting-america/.
Jason Whitlock is a sports columnist for Outkick.com, a TV and radio host and a podcaster. A graduate of Ball State University, where he was a football letterman, he worked as a sportswriter at The Kansas City Star from 1994 to 2010. He has also worked for ESPN, AOL Sports and Fox Sports. In 2007, he became the first sportswriter to win the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Commentary. He founded ESPN’s “The Undefeated” website and helped create and host “Speak for Yourself” on FOX Sports 1.
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