Athletes as Role Models

In 1993, Nike and Charles Barkley put out an ad that was incredibly controversial at the time. In a 30-second TV spot, where Barkley was seen alone in a gym practicing, he monologues:

“I am not a role model.

I am not paid to be a role model.

I am 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.”

In the “now” world of Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and immediate social media response, this ad likely never would have been aired.  There was a backlash in 1993. Can you imagine the outrage today?

But does that mean the message is wrong?  Well, parts of it were very wrong, and parts of it were very right.  Let’s take a look.

The Opportunity

Sports is truly one of the most pervasive elements of our culture.  By just about any measure of influence that we have, it has an incredibly powerful pull on our collective view of the world.  Just look at some of the statistics below on our consumption of sports, dollars spent and our involvement:

  • Time spent consuming television sports –8+ hours per week (
  • Sports sponsorship – $19 Billion (
  • 63 percent of the population strongly identifies themselves as sports fans (
  • Money spent on sports and sporting events – $100 Billion+ (
  • 30-40 million kids per year involved in youth sports (

This level of engagement of the public brings incredible leadership opportunities for the athlete of all types.  From rec league to professional sports, competition is something we watch, pay money for, participate in and love.  We form opinions of athletes and the relationships with the personas they create.

Our culture has given the athlete a huge leadership position — an opportunity to be a role model.

Now, Charles Barkley was right. He was not paid to be a role model. He was given the opportunity to occupy that position by virtue of what he had accomplished in sports.  He had a choice on whether to take up a mantle of leadership or to run from it.

The Mantle of Leadership

What athletes do with the combination of the gifts and talents they have been given and the opportunities that present themselves is a choice of leadership. We remember the greatest of the greats like Walter Payton, Roberto Clemente, Muhammad Ali and others, not only because of their performance on the field, but because they chose to take the opportunity that had been granted to them and invest in themselves as leaders.

They did not beg off from the responsibility, though it may have been hard.

They did not run from adversity, though there may have been pain.

They chose the mantle of leadership that had been offered to them.

They became a role model.

Any athlete can do this.  It takes great habits and discipline to excel at sports.  It takes mind, heart, soul and body all working together to overcome.  Taking those attributes that you have learned to the world in the service of others is the opportunity that athletes are often granted.

Charles Barkley was right – parents should be role models for their kids.  But athletes can be too.  They can help out, be encouragers and teach generations the lessons they are taught as they strive to compete, lift each other up as teammates and bring out the best in each other.

The Choice

What does that mean?  When does the choice to be a role model have to be made by an athlete?  Does it have to be made, or is it made for you?

The choice does have to be made.  While athletes are naturally put under a microscope and up on a pedestal by the culture, that doesn’t guarantee an athlete’s behavior is worthy of being a role model.  It just guarantees that you have the opportunity to be one.

You make the choice to be a role model in the way you walk your walk every day.

You do it in the enthusiasm and joy you bring to your craft.  You do it by lifting up your teammates and coaches.  You do it by standing up for what is right when it is hard to do.  It’s not about perfection; it’s about intention – building for team, others and self – for growth.

There is a choice.  You can choose to take joy in the opportunity and give your best every day towards it, or you can choose to reject it. Your walk, and your impact in life beyond athletics will reflect it.


We hope you take the choice to be an inspiration and a role model. The impact you can make on those around you is amazing. The joy you can bring into lives is incalculable, all the while bringing that joy back to you and your family. Athletics teaches so many lessons about leadership, overcoming obstacles, self-sacrifice, and service to others that the world needs to hear. You can be a huge part of bringing that to the culture and bringing inspiration to a world that desperately needs it.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.