Charles Barkley was sorely missed on Thursday night's Inside the NBA on TNT. What better time to hear from the man who made famous (or infamous) the declaration, "I am not a role model''?
A lot of people still can't get their heads around that concept, that turning a jock into a "role model,'' whatever that entails, is a bad idea. The more time passes since that 1993 shoe commercial first aired, and each time another athlete falls off his or her pedestal - whether the public or the athletes themselves put them up there - the more you wonder why anyone even bothers disputing the basic fact of that statement.
Being a phenomenally talented, dedicated and driven athlete guarantees no other extraordinary qualities - even the honesty to acknowledge that they don't have those qualities.
Yeah, you know who we're talking about here.
The irony is that when Barkley abdicated the misdirected responsibility of role-modeling, he was selling shoes. Maybe you bought the shoes because he said what he said, or maybe you didn't buy the shoes but fully bought into what he said. The point is, he was selling shoes and himself, and what you saw in that spot is what you got for the next quarter century. Barkley did nothing that fit the criteria of athlete "role model'' as it has been defined pretty much forever. Except be honest, about who he was and about what the public should think he is.
I'm a basketball player, he was saying, and I'm also an irresponsible, immature, self-centered, hot-tempered, rude, undiplomatic loudmouth ... much of the time. I'm also thoughtful, strong-willed, compassionate, giving and both independent and team-oriented. Pinning him down is not, and never has been, easy - but that's how most normal people are, even Hall of Fame basketball players.
For him, putting on a phony front was, well, just that - phony. Yet he counts among his close friends, regardless of their shared athletic backgrounds but also largely because of it, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, who have proven over the years how serious they are about manufacturing public images of themselves to maximize the money they can make out of them.
Their manufactured images chipped, cracked and shattered in various ways over the years. It never affected the way they performed, and in the long run, they came out way ahead of Barkley in the wealth department, simply because they felt it was worth putting up a false front to do it - worth cashing on the fact that millions of people would believe they possess superior character, morals and standards of behavior just because they told them so.
After all, how could such a ferocious player, competitor and winner be so self-absorbed, such a compulsive gambler, such a graceless honoree? How could such a steely-eyed, ice-water-veined, laser-focused (and barrier-breaking) golfer be such a lousy family man, such a craven manipulator, such a shameless finger-pointer?
Barkley might not be much of a husband or father himself. He definitely has been caught driving drunk, throwing fans through windows, spitting on children, cursing out those who cross him publicly or privately, wasting a fortune in the casinos and golf courses, and insulting people of all races, creeds and colors. Sometimes he's hilarious while doing it, sometimes you wish he really would grow up and try to act like it matters that people are watching him.
Charles Barkley is no role model. Then again, he warned you about that years ago. And he never showed such disdain and disrespect for the masses upon whom his career as an entertainer has always rested, that he'd tell them a polished, well-rehearsed and premeditated lie to squeeze every nickel he can out of them.
Not like some "role models'' we know.
(Photo: Golf Digest)