As they engage in their daily duties, most heroes to our youth operate quietly, without recognition—parents and teachers, first among them. This, because almost everyone has absorbed the lesson from the ancient Greeks that the best way to teach character and virtue is to put our youth in the presence of adults of great character and virtue, known colloquially as the “power of example.”
Occasionally and blessedly, the larger society is gifted with the example of an extraordinary newsmaking hero in an extraordinary circumstance in extremis, a Rick Rescorla, a Sully Sullenberger, a Liviu Librescu, an Alan Horujko. But in a great country like America, we find them daily if we look hard enough, where Ronald Reagan told us: “We find them where we’ve always found them, in our villages and towns, on our city streets, in our shops, and on our farms.”
Where else do our youth look? For decades, youth surveys have told us our youth, especially our young boys and men, have looked and still look to professional athletes. Those are the adults they have wanted to grow up to be, and thus, to emulate.
Think of the “Be Like Mike” commercials of the past several decades. For better or worse, professional athletes have spoken to and instructed our youth, in both word and deed. For these reasons, many were stunned with NBA star Charles Barkley’s statement some years ago when he proclaimed “I am not a role model.” Karl Malone had the right response to him: “Charles, you can deny being a role model all you want, but I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”
Today’s athletes need to remember this, especially Karl Malone’s rebuke to Sir Charles. Especially given the challenges of the day where the power of example, role models, and heroes are just as needed—just as important—as ever. The rise of disconnected youth, drug use, smart phone abuse (sexting, shaming, bullying), and the Internet have all brought forward an urgent need for more daily powerful character counter-examples. Because our children are watching and listening. They are always watching and listening.
In my role with a youth prevention organization, I cannot count how many times I have heard different but similar versions of parents telling me how much harder it is today, how much greater the cultural challenges to raising healthy children have become. Take the challenge of substance abuse and initiation of use. The old drugs are still there, some are becoming more potent, new drugs are coming online, and the methods of delivery and concealment (from fake key fobs, soda cans, flash drives and other vaping apparatuses meant to conceal their true purpose) are proliferating.
Not helping and making it worse is the growing list of professional athletes touting the benefits of drugs like marijuana, drugs especially harmful to the adolescent and teen brain. Almost monthly, we now read of professional athletes touting both recreational and medicinal use of marijuana—and, too often, confusing the already-blurry distinction.
Taking a strong stand against this is not the popular or culturally hip thing to do, but it is the right thing to do. And Phoenix Suns Coach Earl Watson just did it—beautifully, succinctly, professionally, and, most importantly, clearly:
I think our rhetoric on it has to be very careful because you have a lot of kids where I’m from that’s reading this, and they think [marijuana use is] cool. It’s not cool. Where I’m from, you don’t get six fouls to foul out. You get three strikes. One strike leads to another. I’m just being honest with you, so you have to be very careful with your rhetoric.
He didn’t stop there:
I’ve lived in that other life [of crime and drugs]. I’m from that area, so I’ve seen a lot of guys go through that experience of using it and doing other things with that were both illegal. And a lot of those times, those guys never make it to the NBA, they never make it to college, and somehow it leads to something else, and they never make it past 18. So when we really talk about it and we open up that, I call it that slippery slope. We have to be very careful on the rhetoric and how we speak on it and how we express it and explain it to the youth.
So for the kids who are reading this and they might take the headlines and run with it, don’t run anywhere with it. Understand that if you’re from an environment or social area where a lot of luck and a lot of blessings is your only way out, you cannot risk that opportunity ever. Ever. It’s just the way it is. It’s not the same everywhere. I don’t know as far as the pain [and how marijuana could help], but I think we have to be careful how we present that to the public.
This is how coaches and professional athletes should talk, especially knowing who some of their prime audience is, knowing that children are listening, watching, and emulating. One of the greatest challenges in youth substance abuse prevention is the challenge of reduced perception of harm. As we apparently have to learn again and again: as the perception of harm goes down, use goes up.
All credit to Coach Watson. William J. Bennett has written that heroes possess “a certain nobility, a largeness of soul, a hitching up of one’s own purposes to larger purposes, to purposes beyond the self, to something that demands endurance or sacrifice or courage or resolution or compassion…nurturing something because one has a sense of what deserves to be loved and preserved.”
In one interview, Coach Watson illustrated all of this. We thank him, and wish his voice and example only grow louder and more popular.