“I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”

Charles Barkley, the famous forward for the Phoenix Suns, revolutionized the world of sports debate in the early 1990s with this simple statement. Sports stars have long been idolized (and still are) by young people for their athletic prowess, but do they bear any kind of a responsibility, subsequently, to be upstanding and noble in their private lives?

Are professional athletes really still our heroes? These men and women have trained most of their lives to become very good at what they do. But have other aspects of their lives, such as strength of character, become just as important in earning “idol” status among today’s people?

Absolutely. A professional athlete with high standards is respected far more than one without said standards. As major public figures, athletes are and should act as role models.

Admittedly, athletes have it a little rough. It would be hard for anyone to stand up to the media onslaught most modern-day athletes endure, but harder still is coping with the sudden possibilities a life of wealth and fame bring. Those who are not ready and prepared for this life often make massive mistakes.

Should their lives be held to such intense scrutiny? They are, technically, just athletes. They are really good at making inflatable objects go through steel circles, or throwing things farther than other people, or running faster and jumping farther and winning seemingly pointless events. At no time did they sign a lifetime contract assuring the public they would be a model citizen in everything they do. But is that something that needs to be written down?

It is important that these men and women in our professional sports keep high standards, and especially important is the influence athletes have on children. Kids look for heroes, and they should be given something to live up to, not down to. Little boys and girls don’t typically follow the careers of politicians, secretly hoping that someday they can be like Joe Biden or Chris Christie.

Athletes, just like the rest of us, run the behavioral spectrum: For every Grant Hill (a three-time NBA Sportsmanship Award winner), there’s a Delonte West (another NBA player, arrested in 2009 on his motorcycle with three guns in a duffel bag). For every Miguel Cabrera (the Detroit Tigers’ 2012 Triple Crown winner), there’s a Melky Cabrera (the San Francisco Giants’ 50-game steroid suspension recipient).

Sometimes, a great role model can quickly become a bad one. Jason Kidd, the NBA’s 2012 Sportsmanship Award winner, was pulled over after the season for driving while intoxicated.

Conversely, a bad guy can become a good one. Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) was infamous for his on-court bad behavior in the NBA, most notably in the Pistons/Pacers brawl that spilled into the audience. After acknowledging some personal issues, World Peace changed his name, (most of) his behavior, and became an advocate in the L.A. area for mental health, donating the majority of this 2011 salary to mental health awareness charities. After many years as the NBA problem child, he received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, an annual NBA award given to a player, coach or trainer who shows outstanding service and dedication to the community.

It might not be fair, but being a public figure puts one in a position of responsibility. It behooves professional athletes to try to improve themselves, and then give back to the communities that set them up and make them successful.

“I am not paid to be a role model.”

Well, neither is anyone else.

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