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by John Maza

In 1993, Charles Barkley did what many believe is his greatest strength, and I am not talking about basketball.

Teaming up with Nike, Barkley launched a commercial that would revolutionize the image of the modern day athlete, at a time where the world of sports was quickly evolving.

“I am not a role model,” Barkley said. “I am not paid to be a role model.  I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court.”

And to his credit, Sir Charles is right.

In 2002, an 18-year-old high school senior from Akron, Ohio, was thrown into the national spotlight, after he quickly became the most hyped basketball player in history.

From day one of his senior year, LeBron James was placed under the microscope of the media.  His teammates were forced into his shadow, forced into non-existence.

Day after day, media giants followed in the footsteps of ESPN, sculpting “The Chosen One” into the greatest sports icon since Michael Jordan.

An athlete who is bigger than the game of basketball itself; he is more than a sports hero—he is a role model.

Unlike Jordan or Magic Johnson, LeBron, so far, has done little to tarnish his image.

Did he mess up with “The Decision”? Of course he did.  However, the one thing that LeBron has always done is carry himself with the utmost class.

Not once have we ever heard of LeBron James sleeping around with multiple women, driving down the highways of South Beach as if he was in the sequel of a “Fast and Furious” movie or speaking out, verbally attacking other athlete’s fans or members of the media.

Not once.

However, LeBron is the rare exception.

Long forgotten are the days of Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle and Wilt Chamberlain where the journalists, average people like you and me, could be found sitting on the team bus or train, playing poker with the games’ greats.

Those were the days when the only thing that mattered was the athlete’s performance on the field, with little regard to their lives away from the game.

Not once were the games’ greats considered role models, but heroes: heroes that boys and girls strove to be like in their backyard, imitating a player’s swing, running style or shot.

Players were players; they were men trying to make a living, no different from you or me, or the mechanic down the street.

However, today’s game is a different story.

Today’s sports world is a lucrative industry that has turned the media into attack hounds, sniffing out and digging through a player’s past, present and future.

ESPN has led the charge, thrusting young men, mere college kids, student-athletes, into the national spotlight for public judgment.

Their lives are destroyed, and they are stripped of the luxury of growing up.

Take Allen Iverson for example. A skinny, six-foot phenom, who grew up not knowing when his next meal would come or where he would sleep at night, was transformed into a multi-millionaire destined to fall short of expectations.

After one season at Georgetown University, Iverson was thrown into the fire, pressured to lead the lowly Philadelphia 76ers to their first championship in decades.

Criticized at every turn, Iverson quickly became known as one of the game’s most arrogant, self-centered superstars, the complete opposite of a role model.

Being a role model requires more than “practice.” It requires discipline, respect, class and the ability to be a leader.

However, these qualities are almost always present in star athletes, most of whom are never given the chance to fully develop them.

Often we forget that athletes have never once asked, or tried to become role models.  They are ordinary individuals, who are trying to make a living for themselves and their families by doing what they love to do and what they do best.

“Parents should be role models,” Barkley said.  “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Already, the sports world has chosen their next superstar in Texas A&M quarterback, Johnny Manziel. Manziel, thrown into the spotlight because of his electrifying play, has been under the microscope of the media since day one.

Appearing on sports talk shows, working out with future hall-of-famers such as Peyton Manning and sitting courtside at Miami Heat games have quickly become the norm for this growing sports icon.

Nevertheless, the nation seems to forget that Manziel is just a college kid.

Fans want their superstar athletes to be their role models, to sign every piece of memorabilia as if the athlete has nothing else better to do with his time, to talk to them constantly on social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, to donate large sums of their money to random charities when you will not even donate a dime, instead of simply being their hero: a legend of the game.

The person who, on game day, simply makes us say, “Wow.”

To this day, Barkley is arguably one of the most straightforward, unapologetic athletes to ever set foot on a basketball court.  He could care less about being wrong.  He could care less about anyone’s opinion of him. He could care less about being anybody except Charles Barkley, the professional basketball player, and he was damn good at it too.

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