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Winter 1999

The Character Question
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Bad behavior has always been with us, but today's "gotcha journalism" is making sin and scandal a daily public spectacle and even the smallest infractions are fodder for overzealous scrutiny

By Jason Silverman

Leave it to Nike and Charles Barkley to sum up one of the most important issues of the 1990s with a 30-second commercial. "I am not a role model," said Barkley in the now-legendary 1993 Nike ad. "I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.".

Barkley, who says he plans to run for political office after retiring from sports, adds that parents, not athletes, should be role models for children. On-court prowess, the ad tells us, does not make anyone fit to raise America's kids.

Of course, the position of public figures at the end of the American century is much more complex then Nike and Barkley would have us believe. On the one hand, the behavior of those in the glare of modern media carries an increasing significance today, in an age when much of our information is filtered through our televisions. On the other, athletes, public servants and celebrities seem to be caught misbehaving with increasing frequency. Those in the spotlight may or may not be behaving worse than before, but most will agree that the scrutiny on public figures is more intense than ever.

Scandals seem to unfold almost daily, revealing the sordid stories of the rich and famous. The long list of the tainted range from Barkley (whose public misdeeds include spitting on a young fan) to President Clinton, and includes the 19 current and former UCLA football players who pled guilty earlier this year to misusing handicapped parking placards.


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