NBA legend Charles Barkley once remarked, “I’m not a role model … Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”  While the “round mound of rebound” may have been speaking casually at the time, he may have hit on something important.

Growing up, perhaps the two sports figures I admired the most were Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong.  Both athletes seemed to have an unparalleled level of focus that demanded respect from their opponents.  Both excelled at the highest level of their sport, achieving nothing less than total domination.  Crowds would gather to watch them perform, the casual fan and the sports aficionado alike cheering every step of the way.  I so desperately wanted success for these two men that even their opponents, who by most accounts were fine people, seemed like antagonists to me.

When we all found out in late 2009 that what lied beneath the poker face of Tiger Woods was a much more complicated and confounded individual, I was struck pretty hard.  Folks will debate as to whether or not this particular situation should have been made public, but nonetheless, the facts presented an image of a man I felt ashamed to have admired for years.  Upon hearing confirmation of the story, I ran to my room and tore down his poster I had hanging above my desk, and proceeded to toss it in the trash.  In the immediate days that followed, the simple mention of Tiger’s name made me tense up.  I couldn’t believe that a man who I had aspired to be, who I thought of as a hero, who I looked to as an example of self-discipline, had betrayed every sense of those accolades.

This time around, however, I was able to view the disheartening news in a new light.  Perhaps I was numb to the feeling of pain after the Tiger scandal.  We can also separate apples from oranges here, and acknowledge that in the case of Lance, we’re talking about steroids and admitting to usage, something we as a society are all too familiar with.  Nevertheless, I felt I was able to see the situation much more objectively this time around.

I got to thinking about the concept of having role models – folks that we look up to in admiration, and for inspiration – who end up letting us down in ways described above.  The conflict, I decided, is that we seem to hold our role models in a place that transcends their human element.  In particular, I’m talking about role models we have who are public figures, and who we don’t have personal relationships with.  This internal place they hold, I believe, is similar to where we place the protagonists in the books we read and the movies we watch.  Thus, when the Disney endings don’t play out in reality, or when we find out that all that glitters is not necessarily gold, we are crushed. 

You may think I am advocating for an abolition of holding a celebrity at such a high level.  I actually think the opposite, though our perception could be modified.  I came to the conclusion that I never admired Lance Armstrong, the person.  How could I?  I’ve never met the guy.  I admired the heroic image that Lance Armstrong projected.  I mean, shoot, Lance Armstrong made it trendy to support cancer awareness!  My image of “Lance Armstrong” motivated and inspired me in more ways than that as well, but the idea is that in not knowing him, in not loving him, I lose nothing as a result of the Oprah interview.

I understand that many folks feel betrayed and angered by the lie that Lance Armstrong was living.  For those personally affected as a result of being sued by him, I can understand their pain.  Yet, for folks who never met the man, I think it is simply best to remember the good in what the image of Lance Armstrong brought to their lives.  For some, it motivated them to start working out.  For some, it motivated them to help folks affected by life threatening diseases.  And for some, it motivated them to beat those life threatening diseases. 

I think it goes without saying that Lance Armstrong will have a very difficult road ahead, and will go through a lot to repair the damage he has personally inflicted on those around him.  We as former fans don’t need to spend time tearing him down.  Instead, we can only look back with fond memories of the way his image once inspired us to be more, and now hope that he will revive some of the role model image we all once saw in him and mend the wounds he’s caused and fix up the sport he and so many others trashed.

To return to the idea of role models, I feel as though we thirst for a jolt of inspiration, and have a need to be in awe of what a human is capable of being, and having a celebrity role model like that is important.  However, it’s important to be reminded that while a role model may demonstrate acts of valor, it doesn’t make them immune to imperfection.  We instead must embrace the image that they portray, but be careful to glorify them on a personal level.  After all, they are human like us, and are still in the constant pursuit of being all that one can be.

That’s all for now, folks.

Until next time,

Jack

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