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Not A Role Model, But Why Such a Jerk?

Not A Role Model, But Why Such a Jerk?

  • Current Affairs
  • Opinion

It’s been barely 2 days since Ryan Lochte was dropped from all his sponsorship deals for lying about being robbed at gunpoint during a night out in Rio.

Does he deserve this? Sure he does. It was beyond tasteless to fuel the negative stereotypes that already exist about violence in the Brazilian capital—all in a childish attempt to evade the consequences of some drunken shenanigans.

And yet, it was NBC, along with its indulgent interview with Lochte, which admittedly provided the most nuanced perspective on athletes and the unspoken code of conduct that allegedly governs their behaviour.

By providing Lochte with an unbiased platform to give his side of his story, NBC made a throwback to something Nike once did with Charles Barkley: an advertisement where he tells us, “I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model.”

While The New York Times chastised NBC’s Billy Bush for not being more critical of Lochte’s behaviour, it is now clear that what NBC was practising was not in fact journalism, but entertainment. It was engaged in a ratings game, one in which Bush’s naive acceptance of Lochte’s account played into the Olympic circus of personalities on parade. All he cared about was audience viewership.

Yes, he was, rightly, an unwilling participant in the cult of his success.

“We ain’t here for a long time, we here for a good time,” the former NBA basketball player Charles Barkley once said. Notorious for his heavy drinking and straightforward brashness, he was in a sense right about the fact that professional athletes do not exist primarily as blueprints for good behaviour.

And this is what NBC’s attitude gave attention to. Athletes are paid, often lucratively, to be good at their sport. Their main responsibility is to entertain massive, often invisible, audiences. However, professional athleticism also entails appearances on public television, and like all individuals who are subject to scrutiny, pro athletes have no say in how they are regarded.

Imagine for one moment if Michael Jordan met a young fan who told him he wanted to grow up to be like him. MJ would never laugh in his face, not just because he wasn’t the type to do it—but because he can’t. He has no say in how someone chooses to use the example of his life. And to not acknowledge this as being part of the job is where Barkley was wrong.

At the same time, this is by no means his biggest failing. He had every right to reject the status of a role model that’s been admittedly forced upon him. Yes, he was, rightly, an unwilling participant in the cult of his success.

money talks, and sponsors are free to walk when the athletes they endorse do not behave in ways that align with their brand

Athletes like Barkley and Lochte, in not being able to come to terms with the public scrutiny that surrounds their lives, fail to see that behaving well has nothing to do with being role models. It’s not about being a saint. It’s about not being an asshole.

At the height of his notoriety, Charles Barkley attempted to spit at a fan for insulting him, only to miss, hitting a young girl nearby. In that instance, choosing to walk away would’ve had nothing to do with setting a good example. It would have simply been the smart thing to do.

What Lochte did on a drunken night out in Rio was hilariously lambasted for personifying everything the world hates about Americans. Of all the controversy surrounding what he did, not once was he called out for being a bad role model.

Despite all this debate on how athletes should feel about their place in the spotlight, what this entire Lochte episode boils down to is a relatively uncomplicated reminder. A reminder that professional athletes are never at liberty to do as they please. That if they are to compete professionally, they need to remember that money talks, and sponsors are free to walk when the athletes they endorse do not behave in ways that align with their brand.

For every Charles Barkley out there, there isn’t always a Nike willing to court controversy on his behalf. And between all the incidents that legendary athletes have gained a bad rep for, from Michael Phelps’ drink driving to Tiger Woods’ rampant adultery, surely there is no need to point out that none of this is about being a shining bastion of morality.

It’s about the fact that you don’t have to set an example, but you don’t need to be such a prick either.

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Julian Wong Managing editor