Editor’s Note: This piece was written after members of the N.Y. Knicks and Miami Heat basketball teams conducted press conferences following the suspension of several of their players for fighting. This was the second time in two years that these same two teams — composed almost entirely of spoiled and selfish millionaires — had incurred suspensions prior to crucial games in the playoffs. At that same time, Bill Clinton had just treated the country to a press conference at which he evaded all questions concerning the scandals surrounding his administration. The contempt for the public shown by both the NBA ballplayers and the President of the United States was similar and striking.


 

“I’m No Role Model”

 

 

Much has been written in the past few months about the disconnect between private morality and public performance of duty. The polls accompanying the Monica Lewinsky saga show that Americans have little respect for the president’s character, believe he’s lying about his sexual affairs and overwhelmingly approve of the job he’s doing. The fact that we care little about our leaders’ morals as long as they perform the tasks we hired them to do may be a healthy sign that we’ve grown more mature and less judgmental. Or it may be just a natural response to the way that politicians have abused our trust.

This same reaction is also taking place in an arena far more important to most Americans than politics — professional sports. Personally, I’m a rabid basketball fan, and, today, like our economy, the sport is in great shape: The games are exciting, the stands are packed and money is being made like crazy. And never have the players been bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic ... and more reprehensible.

 

Several years ago, NBA forward Charles Barkley stated that he “didn’t want to be anybody’s role model.” These days, such a notion seems almost quaint. If a role model is someone we can look up to, it’s plain that the average person would have to stand in a pretty deep hole to look up to the typical pro ballplayer. Most knowledgeable sports fans would agree that the moral caliber of the average professional athlete is well below that of the ordinary American.

A recent Sports Illustrated cover story dealt with the number of out-of-wedlock children fathered by professional athletes. According to SI, there is, on average, more than one illegitimate child per NBA player. At last count, unmarried Cleveland Cavaliers forward Sean Kemp boasts seven children by six different women, while N.Y. Knicks forward Larry Johnson has five children by four women, only one of whom is his wife. Who would hold up either of these gentlemen as role models for their sons? Could you imagine a public service announcement on responsible parenting emanating from the mouth of an NBA member? Once you’d finished laughing, you’d want to turn off the sound on your TV set.

Drug abuse, drunk driving, spousal abuse, rape, assault, greed and bad sportsmanship are the stuff of sports news in the 1990s. On most days, the box scores on the sports page are accompanied by several crime-related stories, from allegations of group sexual assault against Washington Wizards forwards Chris Webber and Juwan Howard to the incarceration of Atlanta Falcons linebacker Cornelius Bennett for sexual abuse.

Even the “good citizens” in professional sports are generally poor role models. Magic Johnson, another out-of-wedlock father, became a safe sex advocate after contracting AIDS following unsafe sex with literally thousands of partners, often three and four at a time. And who can forget born-again Christian baseball star Steve Garvey, a paragon of virtue who left behind several pregnant mistresses, much to the surprise of his admiring fans and his devoted wife.

 

The recent game-ending fistfight between Larry Johnson and Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning was one more reason to turn off the sound during sporting events. After being suspended for a crucial playoff game and selfishly blowing their chances to help their respective teams, both players treated us to their philosophies on teamwork. Attempting to justify his childish and thug-like behavior, Mourning claimed that “his manhood had been tested.” Guess what, Alonzo ... you failed! Johnson, demonstrating that father knows best, claimed, “I would have been a punk, if I’d just walked away.” If this is the message sports figures are sending to the young fans who idolize them, Barkley is right: Athletes should not be role models.

 

And neither should their coaches. Heat mentor and all-around bad sport Pat Riley defended Mourning for “taking a stand.” Wasn’t this the same philosophy that convinced Warrior guard Latrell Sprewell that it was about time he took a stand and strangled his coach? I think the fans are the ones who should take a stand. If we can’t bring ourselves to shut the games off — and I, for one, can’t do it — we should at least do ourselves and our children a favor by not watching the post-game press conferences.

I love watching basketball. It’s a beautiful sport: a high-speed ballet, combining grace, strength and athleticism. But as much as I love athletics, I’ve grown to hate athletes. I’m sick of hearing them give interviews — don’t even get me started on boxers, who should never be allowed anywhere near a microphone. If I have to hear one more jock who’s never done a thing to earn anyone’s respect explain how he’s been “dissed,” I think I’ll lose my lunch. And when some headcase with a 42-inch vertical leap complains that he hasn’t been “treated like a man,” just because he’s acted like a spoiled child, I want to shout, “Just shut up and shoot the ball!”

This is why I don’t want to know about the players’ private lives and can’t listen to them speak about themselves or each other or discuss anything beyond the strict limits of the game itself. I have as little desire to hear Pat Riley or Dennis Rodman pontificate about pride and sportsmanship as I do in hearing President Clinton discuss marital fidelity.

My advice is to shut off the T.V. the moment the game is over. And the same goes for any event that involves Bill Clinton standing in front of a podium answering, or struggling to avoid answering questions about his sex life. We simply don’t need this information. In fact, keep your children away from any T.V. screen featuring any politician talking about morality, be it Marion Barry or Newt Gingrich. Your kids would be better off watching “South Park.”

During a discussion about who are the more accomplished athletes — basketball players or decathletes — one of my co-workers offered the opinion that, “The greatest athlete in the world is the thoroughbred racehorse, because it never gives interviews.” If only the same could be said for power forwards, coaches and presidents.


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