Athletes carry personable characteristics such as discipline, talent, and hardworking. Not only are they better than the average human, but they are expected to show citizenship, morality, and wisdom in some way or another (Guest & Cox, 2009). Some critics believe that being an athlete means being able to play the sport to their best ability. Others believe that athletes have a platform to make a positive influence and should use that to become a leader in their community. Society puts pressure on athletes by using forms of media to connect audiences to the athletes themselves. Media plays a significant role in “showcasing and personalizing the lives of athletes” creating a responsibility for them to be cautious about their behaviour (Coombs, D. S., & Cassilo, D. 2017). The debate on whether athletes should be role models has been circling for decades and in recent sports news, this topic has come up again for elite athletes such as Lebron James.

We should question how professional athletes feel about having a burden on their shoulders. It’s also worth studying how much we as a society expect from athletes. Looking at the historical debate of NBA basketball players as role models, we examine why our society strongly believes that professional basketball players are seen as idols. We first look at Lebron James, one of the best athletes in the National Basketball Association, and see how he positively impacts the basketball community and how he has voiced his opinion about being a role model to children. In contrast, former NBA player, Charles Barkley, stirred up the conversation of not being a role model to children in a 1994 Nike commercial. 

Responsibilities as a Role Model

What are the responsibilities of a role model? The term can be ambiguous and uncertain when it comes to defining what to expect from a role model. Nonetheless, roles models can be generally defined as an “individual who is perceived as exemplary or worthy of identification or imitation” (Guest & Cox, 2009, p.2). 

Being a role model is more than simply being a good citizen and displaying a positive influence. Professional athletes face the daunting question of how it may affect their career.  For athletes to make a decision to “engage publicly on potentially controversial topics such as civil rights equality, and social justice issues” they already know that it is dangerous (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017, p.4). In certain cases, athletes have been “criticized and marginalized” after speaking out on a social issue (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017, p.2). For example, Colin Kaepernick, a departed quarterback from the San Francisco 49ers, protested against police brutality by sitting down during the national anthem and is now unemployed. While many fans commend his action, others believe that it’s not his place to voice his opinion. We should ask ourselves, or those who disagree with Kaepernick’s actions, what makes him a bad role model by standing up for what he believes for? How come certain athletes are not scrutinized when they participate in social movements? 

The term role model has a different meaning now for the modern-day athlete. With the advance in mass media and the creation of sports specials such as Open Gym featuring the Toronto Raptors and Backstage: Lakers featuring LA Lakers, fans get to see athletes off the court and in a more personal setting. These shows give a behind the scenes look at the teams daily routine, tells personal stories of each and every player and the struggles that they go through during their season. Now, more than ever, fans and audiences are connected and invested in these athletes personally. Speaking specifically about children, we can see why they would be more susceptible to every move that professional athletes make. It’s hard to imagine a professional athlete that doesn’t get recognized and noticed by public media. 

Lebron James As A Role Model

In early February, Fox News journalist, Laura Ingrahm, voiced her opinion on why basketball players should “shut up and dribble.” The short but very controversial comment about Lebron James and Kevin Durrant, two popular basketball players in the NBA, drew a lot of attention to the basketball community including Lebron James himself. Responding to Ingrahms comment, Lebron stated that “[he] will not shut up and dribble, I mean too much to society, I mean too much to the youth…“. He continues his response by mentioning that “…there are kids out there that need someone to help them get out of the situation that they’re in”. In the Nike advertisement shown below, a young kid from a small neighbourhood looks into his future and follows his journey to the NBA.  The commercial features Lebron James himself, being an influential icon for the young boy who eventually grows up to be on the same team. 

Source: Nike. (2017, October 17). Retrieved April 09, 2018, from

Lebron James has clearly stated in many of his interviews, social media platforms and press releases that he is a role model to many children and he acknowledges the type of power he holds. He has been one of the most involved athlete activists in the NBA and also known to be outspoken on his political views such as Black Lives Matter and his unfavourable opinion on President Trump. As “a community leader and a voice people turn to, the media often portray him as someone who can bring change and cause positive outcomes for others” (Coombs & Cassilo, 2017, p.15). Coming from Akron, he carries out many charities within the community and continuously gives back to the place that he grew up in. Lebron is more passionate about being a positive influence on children because he was one of those kids when he was younger. He was the kid that looked up to the successful NBA player and he had dreams to become the best because he didn’t have a strong figure in his life. Could you imagine if Lebron didn’t become a basketball player? That’s hard to believe, considering he has broken historical records in this era of basketball. 

Charles Barkley “I Am Not a Role Model”

Source: G. (2013, April 13). Retrieved April 09, 2018, from

The video above was a collaboration by Charles Barkley, a former NBA player, and current analyst on Inside the NBA, and Nike. He believes that basketball players should not be responsible to be a role model for kids. In 1993, Nike released a commercial starring himself, stating why parents should be role models for their children with no remorse. In a 2016 interview with Graham Bensinger, Barkley stands by his word and explains why most black children have hopes in dreams of being an entertainer or professional athlete. The misleading title caught many people off guard at first, but the message that Barkley was sending was more about the lack of parenting on their kids. Barkley does believe that NBA players should have some responsibility but to an extent. Hoping to bring more attention to this issue, his Nike commercial is still being referenced to repeatedly. One question that comes to mind about Barkley’s message is, what if the kids don’t have parents to look up to? What if they have no positive influencers in their community to idolize and look up to? 

In a sense, Lebron is speaking to young individuals in the slums, with no parents, and living a difficult lifestyle. Whereas Barkley is encouraging young people to understand that there is more than just professional basketball as a career and that they should listen to parents instead of NBA players. As an analyst for over 30 years, Charles Barkley has managed to stay away from the role model status, as he speaks freely and openly about controversial topics and does little to be an athlete role model. This goes to show that not all athletes need to be an active role model if they don’t want to be. 


Elite athletes are comparable to celebrities in the entertainment industry. It’s inevitable that their popularity and success will draw in fans and impressionable youth. That is not to say that all athletes have the obligation to speak out on social issues and comment on their political stance. Nonetheless, “if one has a special ability to influence others positively, they ought to do so” (Klein, 2017). Athletes are seen in a bigger spotlight than they were in the early 1990s. In turn, their views on social issues and politics are noticed more in the media. 

We can see that NBA player, Lebron James, and Charles Barkley, have a strong opinion on why they should be a role model or why they shouldn’t be. Not only are they speaking for themselves, but they are speaking on behalf of other professional athletes. Some may agree with Lebron, and others will agree with Barkley, even so, that is up to the athlete to decide how much of an active role model they want to play. There should be some responsibility to do the best you can at being a positive influence. We know that professional athletes are humans just like everyone else and no one is perfect. There will be mistakes here and there but as an individual in the public eye, especially being in commercials, press releases, interviews, community events and advertisements, it is undeniable that your actions will be watched by parents and young kids. 

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