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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2001/ 22 Shevat, 5761

Larry Elder

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Athletes and role models -- SOMETIMES you can't tell whether you're reading the sports pages or the crime report. Shortly before the Super Bowl, all-pro defensive player Ray Lewis stood trial for double murder. While the prosecution dismissed the other charges, Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, admitting that he lied to the police during their double homicide investigation.

Meanwhile, former Green Bay Packer tight end Mark Chmura stood trial for sexual assault and child enticement. A 17-year-old accused him of raping her. While the jury sided with the defense, the foreman said, "(Chmura) put himself in a bad situation by being drunk with kids and in a hot tub in his underwear. .... We all agreed that they were in the bathroom together. But we don't really know what took place."

Role models, anyone?

In "Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL," authors Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger estimate that of the 1996/97 NFL players, 21 percent competed with criminal records, up to and including allegations of rape and assault. (Among non-football-playing young men, 15 percent have criminal records.) This means that 79 percent of players possess clean records. Still, the sports role model pool seems a tad shallow.

Here's the problem. The type of person and attitude required to succeed in sports -- especially violent sports like football -- make athletes, almost by definition, a tough sell as role models. Sports psychologist Julian Morrow says, "What makes a player successful on the field -- anger, risk-taking, limited impulse control -- may not make him someone you want living next door."

In May 1998, Sports Illustrated featured an article on the number of NBA players with children out of wedlock. While there have been no studies on athletes and their out-of-wedlock children, insiders say the numbers are staggering. "I'd say that there might be more kids out of wedlock than there are players in the NBA," says one of the league's top agents, who claims he spends more time dealing with paternity claims than he does negotiating contracts. Len Elmore, an ESPN broadcaster and former NBA player, worked as an agent but says he quit in part because of a "lack of responsibility" among his clients. "For numbers, I would guess that one (out-of-wedlock child) for every player is a good ballpark figure," says Elmore. "For every player with none, there's a guy with two or three."

Some players just don't get it. Ray Lewis' teammate Shannon Sharpe ripped Wheaties for leaving Lewis' photo off a cereal box that included other members of the Super Bowl-winning team. And remember when the NBA's Latrell Sprewell assaulted his coach? The team terminated him, but the union went to bat and successfully argued that Sprewell's firing violated his contract. A quick firing awaits most employees who attempt to choke their boss. But, this is sports. As for Sprewell, he now toils for a better team, in a bigger city, and makes more money. Life is good. Former New York Yankee relief pitcher Steve Howe, a drug addict, relapsed not one, not two, not three, but seven times -- that we know about -- yet the Yankees kept him on the payroll. Tough to find good relief pitchers, you know.

And in last year's Super Bowl, St. Louis Rams linebacker Leonard Little played. Earlier that season, Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for driving under the influence and causing an accident that resulted in the death of a St. Louis mother. His sentence? Ninety days in jail, but the judge allowed Little to serve some time on work release.

But don't sports breed character? Not according to Texas Christian University anthropologist Andrew Miracle, Ph.D., and Adelphi University sociologist C. Roger Rees, Ph.D. In "Lessons of the Locker Room," they searched the scientific literature for evidence to support the "sports build character" theory -- and struck out. Miracle said, "Generally, involvement in any extracurricular activity is a good thing, but sports are no better than band or chorus. The danger is that the 'win at any cost' attitude becomes so significant that the potential positive benefits are overwhelmed. ... (Sports) doesn't do most of the things people claim it does, but it sure is good entertainment."

How can we tell whether the athlete's character on the screen translates into good character off the field? In the 1971 "Book of Lists," guess whom both boys and girls, fifth grade through high school, named as their No. 1 hero or heroine? O.J. Simpson. That's right. For both boys and girls.

A true role model remains someone you know and who cares about you. This means parents, relatives, friends, members of the clergy -- people whose character you know, trust and respect. But sometimes the search must end with you. Someone once asked respected Hall of Fame baseball player Frank Robinson whom he admired. Robinson paused and said, "Frank Robinson."

JWR contributor Larry Elder is the author of the newly released, The Ten Things You Can't Say in America. (Proceeds from sales help fund JWR) Let him know what you think of his column by clicking here.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate