When professional basketball star turned TV pitchman, Charles Barkley, spouted the phrase, “I am not a role model,” he did more than turn a few heads and perhaps sell a few pairs of shoes. He ignited a firestorm of debate regarding the roles and responsibilities that professional athletes and celebrities play in today’s society.
To Barkley’s point, “Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids. Parents should be role models.”
Nearly two decades after those frank and controversial words cut across the nation’s airwaves, a look at where role models fit into the lives of today’s young athletes in the United States reveals that Barkley was right, in at least one regard.
Athletes, no matter what type of special skills they demonstrate on the ice, the baseball diamond or the basketball court, should never and will never take the place of a parental figure when it comes to raising a child with the proper morals and values to be a productive member of society.
On the other hand, like it or not, those who have gained notoriety for their prowess to dunk a ball, hit a baseball or shoot a hockey puck do serve a special role by providing the fuel that drives the dreams of future generations of young boys and girls who want to follow in their athletic footsteps.
Long before he was an American hockey star, New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise wanted to be just like two of his favorite American hockey stars. Growing up in suburban Minneapolis, Parise was a common visitor to the Met Center, and it was two of the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars who provided him with a path to follow.
“I loved watching Neal Broten and Mike Modano,” Parise recalled. “Coincidentally they’re both Americans, but those were the two guys I always wanted to be like when I was a kid.”
Parise was lucky in the respect that his idol worshipping took place in the comfort of a seat perched high above center ice, or from reading the pages of sports sections and weekly magazines where the focus was on the on-ice performance.
Those were simpler times, before there were hockey blogs, cell phone videos posted to social media sites and a 24-hour cable news cycle all of which expose every facet of a prominent athlete’s life to the ravenous appetite of the sporting public.
Now that he’s a high-profile athlete playing under the watchful eye of the ever-vigilant eye of the New York City sports media, Parise has learned that the camera, so to speak, is always rolling.
In the past 20 years or so, that increased attention to everything the famous do – be it at center ice of a 20,000-seat hockey rink, or in the center aisle of the neighborhood convenience store – means that the focus is no longer limited to what happens when the puck drops.
“With Facebook and Twitter and everything, just knowing how many people are out there and kind of have access to you, you’re more careful with what goes out there,” said Jillian Dempsey, a member of the 2009 gold-medal winning USA Hockey Under-18 Team. “Even some funny inside jokes, you want to make sure that everything is appropriate, and you don’t want to offend anybody with anything.”
The lesson that today’s athletes are learning is that somebody is always watching, and someone may be taking cues from you, good, bad or ugly, depending on what they see. And very little goes undetected anymore.
With celebrities and athletes too often making news for the wrong reasons, experts still maintain that the vast majority of athletes are positive role models, and it’s important to look past the tabloid headlines to the examples of those who go about their business in the right way.
“A role model is distinguished by his or her behavior, and how they carry themselves on and off the ice,” said Peter Haberl, a sports psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee. “Plenty of athletes aren’t role models nowadays, but plenty are. And the mistake we often make is we often forget to look for the ones who actually are role models.”
For athletes who realize that they are being looked upon by impressionable eyes, it can either be a heavy burden or a positive reminder that they are paying it forward for all that they have received on their way to the top. And many of those athletes take the job of being a role model very seriously.
“Any chance you have to be a role model is a tremendous opportunity,” said Josephine Pucci, a junior forward at Harvard University. “Any little thing you can do to make someone smile or give someone a dream, or a goal, or a motivation to do something that they love is a great honor.”
For up-and-coming athletes like Pucci, there seems to be an interesting transformation when they go from being the star-struck fan to the object of other’s admiration seemingly overnight.
Parise said that the transition from watching to being watched happened when he was playing prep-school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in southern Minnesota. And all these years later, even while he’s making millions of dollars, he feels the lessons he learned about how to conduct yourself off the ice are just as important as anything that was taught between the blue lines.
“They did a good job of teaching you that the most important thing was to be a good person and a good teammate,” Parise said. “When I was at Shattuck and you get on to the top team there, Coach [Tom] Ward did a really good job of teaching all of the players how to be role models and be leaders. You realize that all of the kids from the younger teams are watching you, paying attention to how you go about your business, watching the way you play and practice.”
As a star freshman forward at the University of North Dakota, and a second-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers, Rocco Grimaldi knows that kids have been watching and emulating him for years. Even before he was a star for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, all the way back to the days when he was playing roller hockey in his native Southern California, he had kids following his every move.
Grimaldi admits to looking up to athletes like Michael Jordan and Sergei Fedorov as a youth, but he never had to look beyond his front door to find the real role models in his everyday life. A deeply religious person with plans to start a sports-related ministry, Grimaldi says his greatest influences came from those closest to him, particularly his grandmother, Suzanne Zerbel.
“Both of my parents are police officers, and when I was really young they would work extra shifts. I would always have to stay the night at [my grandmother’s] home, and I became very close with her,” Grimaldi said.
“Even now if I ever have a problem or struggles, she’s the one I call because she has all the knowledge and the wisdom.” Sometimes the role of role model is thrust upon a player when he or she least expects it. Just as Mark Johnson and Jim Craig inspired a new generation of hockey players with their actions in 1980, Parise’s heroics in Vancouver some 30 years later have had the same effect.
Caught up in the magnitude of the moment, it was easy to forget what an impact the effort of the men in red, white and blue was having back home. On that Sunday afternoon, with millions of televisions tuned in and American fans from Alaska to the Florida Everglades cheering for their countrymen, what took place that day in Vancouver helped create the hockey stars of tomorrow. For those in the heat of the action, the full weight of the situation would not be felt until long afterward.
“While we were playing, you’re so engulfed in everything that’s going on, especially being in Canada, that you didn’t realize how huge it was in the United States,” said Parise, whose goal with 24 seconds left in regulation sent the gold-medal game into overtime.
“We know the Olympics are huge, but we didn’t realize at the time how many people were tuning in and watching the games. When I got home, people were telling me about it, and only then did I start to realize what it meant. It was pretty amazing.”
In other words, on that day Zach Parise took a giant leap forward to serve as a role model for the next generation of hockey player. And contrary to what others may say or think, he gladly accepts the job. N