Professional athletes aren’t role models. With that said, I looked up to Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones as a child. Griffey was the face of the Seattle Mariners, had a contagious smile, turned down steroids, has never done anything to hurt his reputation, has done a tremendous amount of charity work, and, as far as I know from reading various stories, a good father to his kids and a good husband. Kids, like me in the 1990′s, looked up to him.

Similarly, Jones was the face of the Atlanta Braves, a gifted hitter. Prior a Giants-Braves game in San Francisco, I stood not 20 feet away from Jones, who was on the dugout steps. It was well before the contest, and the environment was a relatively quiet one. I yelled and yelled for an autograph, but he didn’t acknowledge me. At the time–in 1999, the final year of Candlestick Park–I didn’t think anything of it. I was nine. I was disappointed, but, to my recollection, thought he was just focused on the upcoming game. He could have been. Or he may have been listening to what a teammate had to say instead. Or, he could have been giving me the cold shoulder, a possibly poor personality and attitude rearing their ugly heads. I still followed Jones. He was still one of my favorite players. I didn’t hold the lack of a response and autograph against him.

He has never done anything in the public light that would back up such a presumptive attitude. Even if he had, I would try to focus on the athlete, not the person. Some athletes unethically enhance their performance. After their playing days are over and sometimes during their careers, some are gambling fools and criminals–child and spousal abusers, dog-killers, rapists, drug traffickers, adulterers, murderers. That’s the truth, and that is why focusing on what they do on the basketball court, baseball diamond, football field, ice rink, and golf course is so important. Because of their play, they make us want to buy their poster, their jersey, their shoe, their brand. Clubbing homers, catching, throwing, or intercepting passes, making baskets, or hitting long drives should be sole reasons behind of this infatuation, consumption, and the feeling one gets when watching their favorite player. Why? Because the person behind the athlete is often not someone children want to be.

Michael Vick killed dogs. A married Kobe Bryant had what was deemed consensual sex with a 19-year-old. What these people did will not be forgotten, but their careers aren’t tarnished because of it. As of a week ago, Vick was the leader in Pro-Bowl voting–which is significant because the fans vote–and is considered to be a strong candidate for the Most Valuable Player award. Bryant is still married to his wife and has a large fan-base.

They may think they are invincible outside of sport, given the money they make and their standing professionally, but in no way should their troubles in life leak into their perception of what they do best. It’s hard to look past dog-fighting and alleged rape, but considering so many athletes have problems pushing those atrocities aside has to be done to continue to enjoy the games and athletes.

On Christmas Eve of 2009, Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas pulled a gun on teammate Javaris Crittenton in the locker-room. Crittenton answered by drawing a firearm of his own. This standoff was due to a bet that had gone unsettled. Arenas was suspended for the rest of the 2009-2010 season, as was Crittenton. Arenas, with a much higher profile and larger following than Crittenton despite having played in just 15 games the previous two seasons due to injury, received most of the news. His reputation was hurt by this. He was a fan favorite in Washington, nicknamed “Hibachi”, in reference to the Japanese heating device which translates to a “bowl of fire”, and, ironically, “Agent Zero”, in reference to his number with the Wizards. Before his knees betrayed him, he hit game-winners. His attitude was an entertaining one. He was their franchise player. But, with that incident, his image in the eyes of the Washington franchise soured. Upon returning from suspension he had transformed from a celebrated talent into a mentor to their new face of the franchise, John Wall. He was also a bad contract and a player who admittedly wanted to teach Wall all he could then move on from the organization.

His Wizards career came to an end a week ago, when he was traded to the Orlando Magic for a player with a similarly bad contract, Rashard Lewis. Wall lost someone to look up to. Fellow teammate Nick Young also lost a mentor and a very good friend. Despite hitting teammates hard, the trade was a good one for Arenas. He needed a fresh start, a second chance. And, as shown by Vick’s rise back to the top in particular, our society built around second chances. Still remarkably just 28, he has rejuvenated the new-look Magic. The gun incident is in the past. If he can turn Orlando into a true championship contender is what’s on the minds of many when the topic of Arenas is approached.

When he was healthy and in good standing with the Wizards, I enjoyed watching him play. Injuries happen. Unfortunate incidents happen, too. Players like Arenas wear a uniform and perform for an organization and a fan-base. That’s their job, and they are paid handsomely. They are athletes, not role models.

To be a role model every aspect of their lifestyle must be respected. It has to be a person one would ideally want to be like. And it should come to the surprise of no one that few athletes can possibly fit the bill of a role model. So, given this fact, enjoy the baseball players who once relied on syringes rather than talent. Enjoy Vick. Enjoy Arenas. Enjoy them for who they are when they are wearing their metaphorical and literal masks. If too much stock is put into their personal lives and if one focuses too much on instances like mine with Jones, then it’s difficult to be a fan of the athlete and their talents–and that would be a shame.

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