It would be misleading to refer to professional athletes as being common in any shape, form, or fashion. Their athletic feats alone render them exceptional and unique. However, there tends to be little that is remarkable regarding these modern day Supermen away from their chosen profession. In fact, they often embrace lifestyles that few sane individuals would desire the consequences of. So it is not a surprise that we commonly hear the same sad story regarding African-American male athletes that have haphazardly squander away millions of dollars, produced a tribe of children, failed to have the necessary educational background or courage to publicly comment upon pressing political matters affecting their people. There is nothing notable about that sob story.
In 1993, Charles Barkley, participated in a Nike campaign that pivoted around what would become a familiar refrain among athletes; “I am not a role model.” Barkley was equal parts blunt and serious regarding the fact that neither he nor any of his peers should be considered role models solely because of their athletic prowess; the All-Star forward went so far to highlight the stupidity of such idolatry when he remarked, “A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?”
Barkley’s Nike sponsored message sparked a significant debate about role models, particularly within the Black community. Today, the image of worthy African-American role models amongst professional athletes is so rare that the nation hardly noticed when Minnesota based Republican Representative Pat Garofalo remarked, “Let’s be honest, 70% of teams in NBA could fold tomorrow + nobody would notice a difference w/ possible exception of increase in street crime.” The primary reason that such a racially-tinged statement failed to cause an uproar from a reactionary African-American community is because many of them view athletes with similar disdain.
The image of African-American males has been so tarnished that the aforementioned generalizations are commonly applied to all African-American males, regardless of their educational attainments, careers, or personal situations. Such caricatures are so pervasive, that a figure such as Rashard Mendenhall is considered an aberration within both the sports world and the African-American community. If only I could persuade Nike to revive and slightly alter their ‘I am not a role model’ campaign for the benefit of young African-American males and make Rashard Mendenhall the star; in my estimation, he is what our young boys seeking an athletic career should be aspiring to be.
Mendenhall, a much celeberated athlete from Niles West High School, not only graduated early, but also continued his studies at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) prior to being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. What makes Mr. Mendenhall so newsworthy at this moment is that at the ripe age of 26, he has decided to walk away from professional football in a manner that reminds one of the Cleveland Browns’ Jim Brown’s exit from the National Football League at the apex of his career; Brown went on to have a prodigious life as a political activist. Unlike his peers, Mendenhall has not only cultivated his mind, but also realized that life is about so much more than athletic contests that droves of Americans obsess over.
I am certain that the vast majority of Americans can identify with Mendenhall’s reasons for leaving football when he states,”Imagine having a job where you’re always on duty, and can never fully relax…” The now retired running back also related frustrations with “having to fight through waves and currents of praise and criticism, but mostly hate. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been called a ‘dumb n—–.'” Mendenhall has quite simply had enough of the demands that others have placed upon his life, not to mention the toll that being a professional football player places upon an individuals physical and mental health. Despite repeated charges to the contrary from sports columnists and fans, Mendenhall is not crazy for leaving money on the table, rather he should be applauded for knowing when enough is enough and having some semblance of balance in his life.
From my perspective, it is imperative that African-American males are taught by their community that athletics are a fine activity, however, it should never become your identity. One of the greatest lessons that our young men fail to learn is the need for balance in one’s life. It is fine to be a great athlete, however, we make a serious error when we allow athletics to become our singular reason for living.
As for what the twenty-six year old Mendenhall will do with his life now that he has hung-up his cleats, I will let this impressive young man’s words speak for themselves. “As for the question of what will I do now, with an entire life in front of me?” he wrote. “I say to that, I will LIVE! I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city. I do have a plan going forward, but I will admit that I do not know how things will totally shape out. That is the beauty of it! I look forward to chasing my desires and passions without restriction, and to sharing them with anyone who wants to come along with me! And I’ll start with writing!”
I pray that droves of African-American male youth will not only read Mendenhall’s writings, but also learn from his life; both of those things could prove to be instrumental to those that are coming behind him. Rashard, congratulations on your retirement and remember, that we are eagerly awaiting to read the next chapters of your life. Best of Luck.
Dr. James Thomas Jones III