Nearly 30 years ago, in a 1993 Nike commercial, professional basketball legend Charles Barkley fired the first shot at the “role model” concept popularized by Columbia University sociologist Robert K. Merton in the aftermath of the 1960s counterculture movement. “I am not a role model,” Barkley proclaimed in the half-minute spot. “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m 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.”
Barkley’s words landed with a force every bit the equal of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem knee 23 years later. Former Vice President Dan Quayle defended Barkley, while Barkley’s fellow NBA superstar Karl Malone criticized him in Sports Illustrated. Leading news magazines, including Time and Newsweek, published articles exploring the controversy. Newspaper columnists from coast to coast—on and off the sports pages—also weighed in. The topic still sparks debate today.
Of the many phrases and concepts Merton coined—including “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “unintended consequences”—“role model” has had the most impact. On the surface, the argument that young people tend to model their behavior after high-profile, successful adults is harmless. However, in retrospect, the elevation of athletes and other celebrities as primary figures in the formation of behavioral norms for young people helped create the conditions that are powering the destructive Black Lives Matter movement today.
Merton’s role model concept undercuts the importance of parents and nuclear families. That was the point of Barkley’s criticism. Feminists and other progressive critics of America’s “patriarchal” society—including the Black Lives Matter movement, whose Marxist-influenced statement of purpose opposes “the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure”—have used Merton’s concept to great effect. Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, Farrah Fawcett, Barbara Streisand, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye, and Burt Reynolds infringed on territory primarily reserved for mom, dad, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and teachers.
Technology has helped advance the process, diminishing the influence of traditional authority figures and strengthening the reach of celebrities. Kids shut their bedroom doors, turn on their televisions, laptops, and game consoles, plug in earbuds, open social media apps, and disappear into a world far removed from mom and dad. With a mere push of a button they tune out the worldview of their families and tune in the worldview of athlete LeBron James, actress Lena Dunham, rapper Snoop Dogg, social media race-baiter Shaun King, and others like them.
On top of all this, we now see America’s enemies, particularly China, using these modern role models to promote racial division and destabilize our country—with those on the political Left as their accomplices. Today, they have coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement to push America toward a level of racial dysfunction and animus not experienced since the Civil War.
It’s fitting that Charles Barkley fired the first shot against this trend, because American sports have become the Gettysburg of what some have called our “cold civil war.” And if China and the Left complete their radicalization of sports, our nation may never recover.