“I don’t believe professional athletes should be role models. I believe parents should be role models…. It’s not like it was when I was growing up. My mom and my grandmother told me how it was going to be. If I didn’t like it, they said, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” Parents have to take better control.” —Charles Barkley
I admit it: I thought former NBA player-turned-sports analyst Charles Barkley was a jerk when he said that infamous quote years and years ago. Like, ballers, rappers, movie stars, radio and TV personalities — practically anyone with any remote connection to entertainment — spends their (working) lifetime trying to make us love them, and then the years after their 15 minutes of fame trying to get us to stay in love with them, even though the hotter, younger, better version of them has come along and rendered them completely irrelevant. Did he really think a kid — perhaps one on a school basketball team — who watched him push a basketball up the court wouldn’t want to learn some of his on- and off-court moves? Or that a child who maybe dreamed of being a popular singer wouldn’t want to study how, say, Janet Jackson became such a meteoric sensation? Or that a star’s money and fancy clothes and flashy things wouldn’t have some kind of effect on impressionable little people?
I mean, really: Telling kids not to look up to superstars who became superstars by demanding the world look up to them seemed so ridiculous on so many levels, I got hot just hearing Barkley’s name.
But then I grew up.
And had me some babies.
And the culture of celebrity made a seismic shift, and all of a sudden, guys weren’t just dunking basketballs on the courts but brandishing guns in the locker room. Pretty singers weren’t just making beautiful music; they were stumbling across stages and giving slurred, drunken acceptance speeches at awards shows. Even the wholesome, quiet family guy was out apparently sticking and moving practically every chick that crossed his line of vision — and so doggone sloppy about it that now all his side pieces are tousling their hair, glossing up their lips and scampering toward the limelight in search of their own 15 minutes of fame.
Seriously, the cult of celebrity has become so incredibly grimy that I no longer get surprised by the tomfoolery. And I certainly don’t look for ways to clean it up when my kids notice the stories screaming from headlines or shouted out on the morning news. Like, yes, the little girl from your favorite kid show sent pictures of her naked body to her boyfriend; she was wrong for that and shouldn’t be surprised that all her goodies are now on display for the universe to see. She’s a dummy. Learn a lesson — don’t be like her. You want some OJ with your cereal?
It’s a hard sell, this tactic. It involves not only constant conversation about tricky subjects, but surrounding my babies with people I want them to look up to — who’ve done something enough to warrant the “hero” status, and who are around us enough for my kids to see it up close, over and over again. When they think of heroes, I want my kids to envision my friend Gretchen, an educator who’s fun and relatable and do-or-die helpful — the kind of friend I want my kids to be to their friends. I want them to remember that their Daddy and their papas — all of them — are proud, hardworking, loving men who wouldn’t dream of calling a woman out her name or disrespecting their families by relishing in ridiculously, childishly, destructively bad behavior — the qualities my girls should seek in mates of their own. I want them to think of my BFF/sister-in-law Angelou, who is energetic and committed and building her own business, a business dedicated to helping and healing others. That’s a helluva business model for kids — self-dependent, innovative, and dedicated to thinking about more than just themselves.
Now Gretchen, Angelou, Nick, and the two papas? They, in my estimation, are heroes — much like the Sunday School teachers and factory workers and hair dressers and bowling team members my mom and dad surrounded me with when I was little, each of them family friends, each of them larger than life. My personal heroes. They weren’t rich. They didn’t drive fancy cars. They didn’t lead glamorous, tabloid-fodder lives. But what they did do was note that we kids were watching them and following their lead and that they had a responsibility to set a good example for the ones coming up behind them.
In essence, they conducted themselves like grown ups.
So go ahead and cut up, “stars.” I’m through trying to get you all to understand why we love you and need you to get a little “act right” in ya. I’m busy raising my kids. And they’re being raised to not care about you, too.
So I stand corrected, Charles Barkley: After all these years later, turns out you were giving some sound, sage advice. Thank you.