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Ask any young person, especially a young man what they wish to be when they grow up and invariably most will name a sports position or music industry position.
But the majority of aspiring athletes and entertainers fail and if there is no back up plan, they end up with broken lives made of broken dreams.
And even if they fail to achieve the lofty career goals, the icons they look to for inspiration are not quality hero material.
Take a look at the athletes and entertainers of today, and you will find one dimensional talent with mental or emotional maturity in short supply.
These are not the athletes or entertainers of yesterday.
Marvin Gaye sang poetically of the signs of the times, while James Brown ushered in sentiment of racial pride with “Say It Loud: I’m Black & I’m Proud.” The sex and party music that the people loved was balanced by messages in the music that meant something.
Musicians could be found at the very forefront of the Black Movement and many were sacrificing their careers for what they believed in.
We can find similar actions in sports history.
When Mohammed Ali fought, I took every punch he took and cried when he was hurt or when he lost. My pain was palpable and felt as real as his own.
When Ali won, I delivered every blow to every man he ever fought and I stood proudly when he fought the United States over the Vietnam draft. Very few Blacks were brave enough to fight an entire nation, but he did, even knowing that it could cost him everything.
He fought more than just the fights inside of the ring and was a role model to little Black boys across the world. Ali stood up for Black people and their causes, while sports figures such as Joe Frazier sat back, claiming to represent all of America.
In fact, it can be said that Ali was the last of a dying breed, even though there were many before him and during his own time.
Before him, Joe Louis was also a role model. Long before Ali, Jesse Owens was not only a symbol for Black Americans, but a symbol for the free world in the fight against Hitler’s Nazi movement.
During Ali’s own time, a great number of athletes stood for something more than the sport they played. Many stood for their people.
At the 1968 Olympics, the world saw four young men raise their Black-gloved fists in support of a revolution that was boiling in America.
Sports figures were role models, but not everyone stood up.
Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar) boycotted the 1968 Olympics, while OJ Simpson decided he was more an athlete than a Black man, and refused to boycott. In the same way that Joe Frazier was juxtaposed to Ali, OJ was juxtaposed to the militant athletes in football such as Jim Brown, who is still a militant activist to this day. For America, OJ Simpson was a colorless entity. He was more than a Black man, he was a star.
He was also a harbinger of times to come, as athletes, much in the same manner as other highly visible Blacks, abandoned any ties to being role models.
A sign of the emerging times was boxing’s Sugar Ray Leonard, a star athlete of the 1970’s and 1980’s, who tried to erase his race, often speaking of how race was no longer an issue in America.
He was no Mohammed Ali. And even today, there are very few men like Ali in sports. Where is the activism in sports? In the same toilet as Black activism in general. Today’s Black athletes are active about becoming million-dollar players, and not very concerned about the condition of those beneath them.
In fact, many of them are uneducated and unsophisticated, generally unworthy of being role models to anyone.
Before analyzing the obvious fact that most athletes are not very educated, there are some other glaring reasons why they shouldn’t be looked at as role models. Charles Barkley perhaps said it best.
“I think the media demands that athletes be role models,” said Barkely.” What they’re really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can’t become, because not many people can be like we are. The ability to run and dunk or hit 40 homers or rush for 1,000 yards doesn’t make you God Almighty.
“Kids can’t be like Michael Jordan,” he continued. “They can’t pass the ball like Earvin Johnson. There’s one or two guys out there—the other 99 percent have got to get a job, have got to get an education. They should be looking up to their parents.”
Rap artists have made similar pleas to abdicate responsibility, claiming that they are merely acting out their parts and should not be looked upon as role models.
Considering that most rappers make little of what the public believes they earn, I would tend to agree that they should not be held up as role models for anyone.
And reality sheds even more light on why athletes should not be looked at for leadership.
According to the NCAA, while Blacks make up roughly 50 percent of all college basketball players, only 35 per cent of those players actually earn a degree. The fact that the number of available pro ball positions is low means that there are too many Blacks shooting for hoop dreams, but scoring nightmarish lives of failure. All of this in an era when Affirmative Action is under attack.
In addition, there is an alarming trend for many aspiring athletes to avoid paying attention to the college path with phenomena such as Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, who give the illusion that the focus can be on the sport and not the education.
It is a very rare tale told of a college athlete who focuses on education and emerges with a promising career outside of sports. Yet, on campuses such as the University of Southern California, one out of every seven African American males on campus is there on athletic scholarship.
The answer is perhaps found in the media.
The phenomenon of window dressing is at its height with more entertainers on television, particularly rappers, who grossly exaggerate their wealth.
If we do look to sports figures, perhaps there is none better than Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who has transformed himself deftly from basketball superstar to Black Businessman extraordinaire.
In 1992, one year after announcing to the world that he was HIV-positive, Magic created Magic Johnson Enterprises, which unleashed music, film, coffee and other business ventures, all branded with his famous moniker.
The difference between Magic Johnson and any other successful Black businessman? Magic wants to do it for African Americans and has no problem saying so.
For all that he has accomplished for the world to see, Magic still eyes the desire to “unleash the economic power of urban America.” He recently created a relationship with Washington Mutual Bank to commit $375 billion over ten years to home loans in minority and moderate-income communities.
Magic not only serves as a role model for Blacks who want economic empowerment, but he still serves as a role model for the throngs of young Black men who are entering the game he played so well, admonishing them for embracing the thug mentality, attire and lifestyle. Other athletes now sit at his feet for business advice.
Yet, for all of his shine and visibility, very few athletes or entertainers are truly following Magic’s lead. And very few high profile African Americans are stepping into the most important arena for Black advancement-economics.
Without any intrinsic leadership, disenfranchised Blacks look to any face within the race that appears to be accepted by the masses to speak for them.
Those faces are the most frequently seen faces-the faces of athletes and entertainers.
Some of us who are more informed already realize that true leadership lies not in one or two public figures, but in the hearts and deeds of many local figures.
My older brother is a Black leader because he went to college and continued on to graduate school, setting an example for me.
My stepfather was a Black leader because he married my mother and her eight kids and worked for us until the day he died.
Black teachers who choose a career of educating Black boys and girls are real leaders, and should be magnified because they sometimes spend more time with our children than we do.
The many mothers and fathers who love each other and stay married to each other in order to provide safe, stable homes for children they are responsible for are real leaders, because they exist even as many ignorant people with unhappy lives claim that they are no longer real.
These leaders may not speak on television, chase a ball or flow to a beat, but they are working to effect change upon the oncoming generation in the midst of opposition from within and without.
Real leaders can’t always jump like Magic Johnson, they can’t always fight like Mohammed Ali and they can’t always sing like James Brown, but they are real. We have only to magnify their existence.
Darryl James n is an award-winning author who is now a filmmaker. He released his first mini-movie, “Crack,” and in Spring of this year, will release his first full-length documentary. James’ latest book, “Bridging The Black Gender Gap,” is the basis of his lectures and seminars. Previous installments of this column can now be viewed at www.bridgecolumn.com. James can be reached at