Back in 1993, Charles Barkley wrote the words for a Nike commercial. You know the one. The camera zoomed in on his face in fuzzy black and white. Those famous five words emerged.
“I’m not a role model,” Barkley said.
Basketballs pounded and sneakers squeaked.
“I’m not paid to be a role model,” he continued. “I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”
The words were debated and parsed and, in the end, ignored.
But they were true.
Those sneaker-hawking 27 seconds didn’t change anything. Not in our society. Twenty years later we shove people whose bodies do things we can only imagine into the position of role models. We airbrush real life away. Think we know them, really know them, through social media’s spider web. Exalt them because they jump higher or play through more pain or run faster than us. Call them inspirations. Warriors. Heroes.
And when they experience the same failure and flaws as the rest of us, we profess shock. Confusion. Anger. Betrayal.
Look at the last month. Lance Armstrong doped. Manti Te’o’s girlfriend didn’t exist. A host of major leaguers were linked to a Miami performance-enhancing drug clinic. And Oscar Pistorius, whose name couldn’t be uttered without gushed superlatives during the London Olympics last summer, reportedly pumped four 9 mm bullets into his girlfriend of four months named Reeva Steenkamp last week.
So, the 26-year-old Pistorius sits in a jail cell in Pretoria, South Africa, charged with murder. He claims he thought she was an intruder. Police believe otherwise.
And we’re left with an uncomfortable reality: no matter how we wish otherwise, our role models, our heroes, are human.
The shattered legend constructed around Pistorius still seems fresh, emotive music and artful camera angles that revealed the real story behind the man seemingly every time NBC clicked on during the Olympics. You know, the boy born without fibulas who became South Africa’s most popular athlete with the help of those carbon-fiber Cheetah blades.
The “Blade Runner,” people called him. A man missing both legs below the knee could pound out 400 meters in 45.07 seconds. You couldn’t dream up better evidence of man’s ability to overcome devastating disability. The name became synonymous with inspiration.
How could you not love the story? The Paralympics couldn’t hold him. So, Pistorius became the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics. Carried South Africa’s flag in the closing ceremony.