“And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind.” – Titus 2:7
This debate goes back to the 1990’s when Charles Barkley was criticized for his behavior on and off the court. People reminded him that he was a role model for teenagers and children. He responded to this in a Nike commercial, where he reminded parents, “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents are role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Professional athletes have a power of influence on adoring fans, especially among those who have few role models in their lives. We can say that parents are the main role models in a child’s life, but this assumes they have caring parents to do the job.
Still, it’s hard to imagine even the most loyal football fan wanting to be just like Ray Lewis someday, and have 6 children with 4 different women.
What about Christian athletes?
Whenever Christians become popular athletes, some Christians unfairly put them on a pedestal and make them role models for discipleship. Many Christians have rejoiced that Ray Lewis and Colin Kaepernick represent the Christian faith on the biggest show of the year. And of course there’s Tim Tebow.
The Christian athlete, like any Christian, should be an example of grace. Like the rest of the world they can be weak, selfish, and prideful people. They face the same temptations we do, but they also face the temptation of pride and self-glorification even more than we do.
Rather than encouraging our youth to see Christian athletes as role models, maybe the church (as well as Christian professional athletes) should instead be encouraging our youth to look at people like the tax collector in Luke 18, who “would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’