Private shenanigans shouldn't dilute stars' credibility
Just because, said Charles Barkley, I can dunk a basketball, it doesn't mean I should raise your kids.
He also said: "A million guys in jail can dunk a basketball; should they be role models?"
Last week, and not for the first time, Rio Ferdinand was entitled to ask similar questions, if he had the courage to do so. But Rio never had Barkley's brash independent streak.
By the 1980s it had become part of corporate strategy in America to market famous sportsmen as role models for young people. It was good for their image and it would help sell merchandise. Almost every high-profile athlete toed the party line. Most of them still do.
But Barkley, a now retired basketball superstar, thought it was a load of cant and hypocrisy. Nike, naturally, turned his iconoclastic attitude into an ad campaign. The commercial, aired in 1993, became famous. In a few short sentences he rejected outright the obligations that had been placed on him by various pillars of society. "I am not a role model. I'm not paid to be a role model. I am 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." (Just Do It)
In April 2010, the Sunday Mirror exposed Ferdinand as, surprise surprise, a love cheat. Perhaps even a love rat. In February 2010, the Manchester United star had taken over as captain of the England national team from John Terry, who himself had just been outed as a particularly egregious love rodent.
Between one thing and another, Rio's rap sheet was fairly lengthy by then. And he was fed up with the bad publicity. What's more, he was a changed man. He had stopped the philandering. He had married his long-suffering partner, the mother of his three children, in 2009. This latest story was "stressful and embarrassing". So he sued. He wanted £50,000 in damages and a permanent injunction against Carly Storey, his hitherto long-term mistress, who'd sold her story to the newspaper. The Sunday Mirror admitted in court to paying her £16,000.
Last Thursday, Judge Andrew Nicol delivered his verdict in the High Court. He came down on the side of the newspaper: the story was in the public interest. Unfortunately for Ferdinand, it seemed that Judge Nicol had never heard of the Barkley argument. But the decisive issue seemed to be the England captaincy.
"There are many," said the judge, "who would indeed see the captain, at least, of the England football team as a role model. On the evidence presented in this case, it is by no means a universal view that the captain's role is confined to what happens on the pitch." His behaviour "could legitimately be used to call into question his suitability for the role".
Of course, his suitability for the role would not have been called into question had no one found out about his behaviour in the first place. Which brings us to a question that is at the heart of the matter: do we need to know this stuff? Is it information that must be made public? It's an issue that pertains to all sorts of people in the public realm, from politics to media to entertainment.
Let's keep it to sport here. Sports men and women become famous because they are very good at what they do. In most cases their wealth and fame is built almost exclusively on their talent. They haven't faked it; the talent is real and proven. For 100 years and more, these exceptional sporting performers have generated mass appeal. And in all that time, there was no evident demand among people to know more about these stars. What they saw was enough. And what they saw were great athletic feats, exhibitions of skill, demonstrations of courage. It was more than enough.
They didn't need to know any more then. And, in this opinion, we don't need to know any more now. We don't need to know what Tiger Woods gets up to in his private life. Or Wayne Rooney or Ryan Giggs or Charles Barkley.
One couldn't help but think of the thousands of children who have grown up idolising a Giggs or a Rooney, only to have their brief window of innocence contaminated by the public revelations of these footballers' private lives.
And after we the adults have digested the latest sordid details, one is still left with the perennial question: are we any better off for knowing this? What relevance does it have to what Rooney does on a football field or Woods on a golf course? What matters is what they do in their chosen arena. The rest is just gossip.
Barkley is right: why should someone who is brilliant with a ball be uniquely qualified to be a paragon of virtue too? It is enough that they are brilliant at what they do because this, on its own, can inspire people and maybe even educate them. They are role models until the moment they step off the basketball court or the football field. After that, we don't need to know any more.
Ferdinand is entitled to say: go raise your own kids. But, as he found out again last week, he can't control what the public knows about him -- and the public can't control what it finds out about him either.
Sunday Indo Sport