The guy spit on a fan, broke a man's nose in a fight after a game, was arrested when a gun was found in his car after he'd been stopped for speeding. Last summer, after elbowing a spindly Angolan in an Olympic basketball game, he mused: "How did I know he wasn't carrying a spear?" His encounters with officials, opponents and fans are plentiful. Even the title of autobiography offers the suggestion of a challenge: Outrageous! The fine life and flagrant good times of basketball's irresistible force.
As this season's NBA Most Valuable Player tries to carry the Phoenix Suns to a world championship, Barkley is trying to extricate himself from the persona he has created, to separate the player from the man.
"I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model," he says in the commercial for Nike, the giant athletic-wear company. "Parents should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids."
What Barkley says is very much his view. He has said it for years, not just when he was getting paid to say it. Then again, if he weren't a role model, would Nike be paying him megabucks to wear its products and to say he isn't a role model? And if he weren't a role model, would anyone be listening?
It is a paradox.
The commercial is a stark, shadowy, black-and-white, moody departure from Barkley's more bizarre ads for Nike _ the tragicomic opera and the in-the-paint, in-your-face battle with Godzilla.
"This particular ad, it was something I'd read in Charles' autobiography and heard him say many times for years, and I thought it was an interesting sentiment," said Jim Riswold, who wrote the copy for Weiden & Kennedy, Nike's ad agency. "He said it again last summer, when we were doing Godzilla. I thought it was a thought that ought to be out there."
with a conscience
Fred Danzig, editor of Advertising Age, calls the Barkley ad "a recognition of the criticism over the years of endorsement advertising by sports heroes, the "How can they justify the use of these people who may not be the perfect role models for kids?'
"This commercial addresses that question," Danzig said. "And by having a guy like Barkley say, "Hey, I'm not perfect,' it represents a maturity on the part of an advertiser."
Is the message clear?
Brel Mackey, a point guard at Pinellas Park High School, said he can separate Barkley the player from Barkley the man. "Basketball's an emotional game, and he's human," Mackey said. "Sometimes he can't control his emotions. But just because he does all that stuff, I don't do it. I'd like to play as good as he does, but that doesn't mean I'm going to use him as a role model the way he behaves."
Brel Mackey wears only Nike.
Dusty Kidd, Nike's public-relations manager, said his company believes it has a "corporate responsibility" to produce positive messages that have nothing to do with sneakers "because so many of our consumers are young and impressionable."
Hence its "Nike confronts the Issues" commercials with Spike Lee, David Robinson and so on.
"The ads are being talked about and written about, especially this (Barkley) ad," Danzig said. "Any time an advertiser breaks new ground, after you get through discussing the ad itself, there's going to be good journalistic cynicism about whether they're cashing in on the public-relations value."
"If you believe that," Kidd said, "I think you're guilty of some fairly far-reaching cynicism, in the same way that people wonder if a company working with kids is just good public relations. It's still good for the kids. If it's good PR, is it necessarily bad?"
No, says William DiFazio, a sociologist at St. John's University, in New York. "Barkley is making a statement of fact. Parenting is a very complicated task. Why should he be somebody's role model? That he got paid to say it doesn't invalidate it."
But does what he says have any validity. Can he choose not to be a role model?
No, says Utah Jazz star Karl Malone in a piece entitled One Role Model to Another, on the back page of last week's Sports Illustrated magazine. "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."
To athletes, stardom
can be difficult
Why Barkley has been elevated to role-model status, and whether he should be, opens a whole new area of debate.
"That we need external role models to the family is really an indication of the disintegration of the family in the postmodern world," DiFazio said. "Over the last 50 years, it's become clear that the ideal family we used to think of _ daddy goes to work, mommy stays home and raises the kids in the house with the white picket fence, the dog and the two cars _ doesn't work anymore."
DiFazio takes the theory _ and Barkley's commercial _ one step further, saying we are a society that no longer wants to be responsible to young people. "Barkley is reproducing the feeling. "I don't want to be a role model' is another way of saying: "I don't want to be responsible to young people.' But he's not saying it as Barkley; he's saying it as the typical American adult."
Marva Collins, founder of the Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, says that what parents have to decide is what image they want for their children, and that they have to create it and reinforce it.
"Each of us can unlock our insides, and no one else can do that unless we give them the key," Collins said. "We do not need spokespersons. I don't need someone to speak for me, to decide what's best for me. Nike doesn't decide what's good for me."
Rev. Harry Dawkins of Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg said there is nothing wrong with youngsters looking up to the Barkleys of the world, "but we also have to teach them that their lives don't begin and end on the (basketball) court. We have to sit down with our children and explain to them the facts of life, that it's complicated, that sometimes to these athletes their stardom is a difficult part of their lives."
What it comes down to is this, said Marcy Magiera, senior reporter for Advertising Age. "Nike is in the business of selling sneakers. The crux of their message is that the ills of the world aren't their fault; they didn't create them, and they're not going to cure them," said Magiera, who has written about the athletic-shoe industry for seven years.
"This (Barkley commercial) is an outgrowth of that. I think people may be taking this whole thing just a little too seriously."