I love Charles Barkley like a brother, and except for the times when we're banging and pushing each other under the boards in games between my team, the Utah Jazz, and his, the Phoenix Suns, we're great friends. We don't necessarily like the same things: Charles loves golf so much he would play at halftime if he could, but I think a golf course is a waste of good pastureland. One of the reasons we get along so well, though, is that we both say what's on our minds without worrying about what other people are going to think—which means we disagree from time to time. Here's an example of what I mean: I disagree with what Charles says in his Nike commercial, the one in which he insists, "I am not a role model." Charles, you can deny being a role model all you want, but 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.
I don't think we can accept all the glory and the money that comes with being a famous athlete and not accept the responsibility of being a role model, of knowing that kids and even some adults are watching us and looking for us to set an example. I mean, why do we get endorsements in the first place? Because there are people who will follow our lead and buy a certain sneaker or cereal because we use it.
I love being a role model, and I try to be a positive one. That doesn't mean I always succeed. I'm no saint. I make mistakes, and sometimes I do childish things. And I don't always wake up in a great, role-model mood. There are days when I don't want to pose for a picture with every fan I run into, when I don't feel like picking up babies and giving them hugs and kisses (no matter how cute they are). Those are the days I just try to steer clear of the public.
But you don't have to be perfect to be a good role model, and people shouldn't expect perfection. If I were deciding whether a basketball player was a positive role model, I would want to know: Does he influence people's lives in a positive way away from the court? How much has he given of himself, in time or in money, to help people who look up to him? Does he display the values—like honesty and determination—that are part of being a good person? I wouldn't ask whether he lives his life exactly the way I would live it or whether he handles every situation just the way I would handle it.
I do agree with Charles on one thing he says in his commercial: "Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." But sometimes parents need a little assist. There are times when it helps for a mother and father to be able to say to their kids, "Do you think Karl Malone or Scottie Pippen or Charles Barkley or David Robinson would do that?" To me, if someone uses my name in that way, it's an honor. Sure, parents should be role models to their children. But let's face it, kids have lots of other role models—teachers, movie stars, athletes, even other kids. As athletes, we can't take the place of parents, but we can help reinforce what they try to teach their kids.
Parents just have to make sure they don't take it too far. Sometimes they put us on a pedestal that feels more like a tightrope—so narrow that we're bound to fall off eventually. This is not something I'm especially proud of, but I've had parents in Utah say things to me like, "You know, Karl, in our family we worship the ground you walk on. In our house your picture is right up there on the wall beside Jesus Christ." Now, that's going too far. Is it any wonder some athletes don't want to be role models? Who wants to be held up to that kind of impossibly high standard? Imagine someone putting a life-sized picture of you on a wall and saying things to your picture before they go to bed. That's scary.
The scrutiny gets to be overwhelming at times. I feel for Michael Jordan's having to deal with the negative publicity he received last week about gambling. I don't think most people can imagine what it's like to be watched that closely every minute of every day. I was told once that it wouldn't be that bad for me because no one would know me outside of Utah, but that's not true. Ever since I played on the Dream Team in the Olympics, I can't go anywhere without being the center of attention, and that's very confining at times. For instance, there have been occasions when I've felt like buying a big Harley-Davidson motorcycle and riding it down the street. First, the Jazz would have a fit and say it's too dangerous. Second, everyone would be watching to see if I wore a helmet, if I was obeying the speed limit, if I was taking turns safely—you name it. The first time I didn't measure up to expectations, I would hear, "What kind of example is that to set for other people who ride motorcycles?"
But the good things about being a role model outweigh the bad. It's a great feeling to think you're a small part of the reason that a kid decided to give school another try instead of dropping out or that a kid had the strength to walk away when someone offered him drugs. But one thing I would encourage parents to do is remind their kids that no matter which athletes they look up to, there are no perfect human beings. That way, if the kids' heroes should make mistakes, it won't seem like the end of the world to them.
I would never knock someone for saying what he thinks. If Charles doesn't consider himself a role model, that's certainly his right. But I think he is a role model—and a good one, too. And if he gets that NBA championship ring this year, I might just make him my role model.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS