For the past week, the nation has been swept up into a craze of basketball madness. The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships have captivated the country, and for a fortnight, all eyes will be on young men dueling it out on the hardwood.
Children will recreate buzzer beaters on their backyard hoops, Case Western Reserve University kids will try out the moves they’ve watched on TV and middle aged men at rec centers across America will reminisce about the time the almost committed to a Division I basketball program.
We will emulate Jahlil Okafor’s post moves in the paint and Frank Kaminsky’s all-around shooting ability. However we can’t forget that Okafor and Kaminsky, the two best college players in the tournament, are just 19 and 21, respectively.
As sports enthusiasts, we often expect perfection from athletes off the court just as much we expect it on the court. We don’t expect perfection from 19 and 21 year olds at CWRU, or anyone for that matter. Then why do we hold athletes to an expectation of perfection off the court? They are humans after all—physically talented humans, but humans nonetheless.
Oftentimes we are quick to judge athletes without understanding the environment they live in. Athletes may be human, but they live a very different life than the average Joe. Division I athletes must balance workouts, practices and meetings while somehow fitting in a full course load.
Then professional athletes suddenly come into a large sum of money and have no knowledge of finances or proper savings. So why are we so quick to criticize when a retired football player files for bankruptcy? They live highly regimented, restricted lifestyles to attain competition-ready perfection. So why did the media have a circus when Michael Phelps chose to kick back with a bong?
As a society, we place too much pressure on our athletes, and much of it doesn’t make sense. They choose to pursue careers in football, basketball, swimming, tennis, etc. We choose that their personal life be as flawless as their spiral.
In 1993 Charles Barkley penned and starred in a Nike commercial titled “I am not a role model.” In the 30-second ad Barkley stated: “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models.”
A scan through Barkley’s Wikipedia page makes a few things apparent: He was one of the greatest basketball players ever, he is now a successful basketball analyst and he has had several professional and personal missteps. During his career he was involved in many fights and during a game in 1991, accidentally spit on a young girl while aiming towards a heckler in the stands. Post-basketball Barkley has admitted to gambling issues and was convicted for drunk driving.
Barkley clearly has succumbed to human imperfection as we all do. Should this discredit his basketball abilities and 15 years as an analyst? Is it worth noting that Barkley reflected on the spitting incident and concluded that his priorities were too focused on winning at all costs, not on respecting the game he loved? Or that he is an outspoken supporter of marriage equality?
In separating athletes’ performance on the court from their personal lives, I am in no way condoning Ray Rice beating his wife unconscious or Oscar Pistorius firing shots through a door and murdering his girlfriend. Former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez should face trial for his actions, the same as anyone indicted for triple homicide. But let’s leave the judgment to the judges. As sports enthusiasts, let’s remain enthusiastic about sports and an athlete’s performance in sports.
Athletes should be respected for their hard work, determination and athletic performance. These attributes are role model-worthy when framed within the correct context. Let’s engage young people in frank discussions about what makes a role model. We can admire Pistorius’ ability to overcome his double amputation and compete at the Olympics or appreciate Okafor’s poise under the lights of The Dance as a freshman.
Respect athletes for what they are: athletes. Lower your off-court expectations and relieve the pressure on young athletes to be perfect in every aspect of their lives. Stop vilifying athletes for being human, celebrate their success and watch March Madness unfold.
Heather O’Keeffe is a junior studying biomedical engineering and minoring in sports medicine. She’s rooting for the Badgers and Kaminsky to win The Dance (and her bracket). She likes reading the Genius.com annotations to Kendrick Lamar’s new album.