- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Allen Iverson may be on the most wanted list in Philadelphia, but he is still on the backs of America's youth who are wearing his famous number 3 jersey.

At a basketball camp in Columbia, Md., yesterday, there were more Iverson jerseys to be seen than any other player who was represented. Some might believe that this represents a further deterioration of the values of our youth, to embrace such a notorious figure.

But I think there is something else going on with this generation of kids coming up today. They may be a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and a lot smarter than we were when we were kids.

To them, a basketball jersey may just be simply that a basketball jersey.

I asked one of the boys wearing an Iverson jersey if he knew about Iverson's legal problems the charges facing him for allegedly possessing an illegal firearm and threatening someone in a dispute involving his wife. The kid said he had heard about it, but didn't pay much attention to it.

"Don't you think you are glorifying his lifestyle by wearing his jersey?" I asked, and the kid said, "It's just a jersey, man, and he's just a basketball player."

Yeah. Maybe that's a lesson we could all learn.

I'm not naive enough to think that Allen Iverson doesn't represent much more than just a ballplayer. When Reebok uses him to market their shoes, they are selling a lifestyle to a generation of kids who embrace a hip-hop culture. And I know that this generation, more than any other, has been influenced more by the power of advertising and marketing.

But they also may be the most sophisticated generation that has come along yet in terms of marketing, and they may not be influenced any more by the likes of an Allen Iverson other than in what they wear or what music they listen to, or any other number of ways generations express the culture of their times. It doesn't necessarily translate to an influence of values. In fact, the influence of such public figures as athletes on the values of our youth may be at an all-time low, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

This, of course, is a variation on the athletes as role models argument, and do they have a responsibility as role models, the issue that Charles Barkley raised years ago. Every adult is a role model to any youth they come into contact with. But this whole notion that some detached athlete that a kid never met before can significantly impact the lives of our youth may have been a misguided notion all along.

Many times, it was certainly a lie. I read the Mickey Mantle story as a young boy until the pages fell out of the book. He was a ballplayer that I admired, and I fell in love with the story of a courageous, good-hearted country boy. I didn't know he was a mean drunk who wasted a good part of his God-given talent. That may have crushed me, because I expected more from someone who was a hero of mine.

But over the years since then, the role of athlete as hero has been diminished, chipped away by the glare and the enormity of the media, until perhaps there are no such expectations any more by our youth. Maybe there have been so many disappointments over the years that finally expectations and reality are as close to being equal as they ever have been at least among our youth. I'm not sure the adults have caught up yet.

How else do you explain why business people would be willing to pay money to hear motivational speeches by people in sports athletes and coaches some of whom have never accomplished any sort of business achievement in their life? Do they really believe that Dick Vitale or Bill Parcells can make them be better people? They could learn something from those kids wearing the Allen Iverson jerseys.

As far as Iverson himself, he apparently doesn't seem too concerned about whether or not he will be wearing number 3 again this year for the 76ers or a much longer number in the correctional system. Throwing a party with the entire Philadelphia media parked outside your house while you are facing an arrest on assault charges is right out of the "Animal House" strategy book. Facing double-secret probation? Road trip.

Iverson may be taking a road trip, no matter what the outcome of the charges. Philadelphia may decide that Allen Iverson the basketball player isn't worth the headaches of Allen Iverson the person, though it's still doubtful he would be traded, given the difficulties of getting equal value in return. But if he was, then you would have more kids buying Iverson jerseys, this time with a new team, because he is a very good basketball player.

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