Iconic Sports Commercials: Charles Barkley's 'I am not a role model'

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger Woods’ ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama

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How it came about

One of the most fiercely debated commercials in Nike history arose from an alarming discovery.

Nike learned in early 1993 that its popularity had slipped among teenage males, a demographic that the shoe-apparel giant had long considered its bread and butter.

Reebok in particular had made inroads after unveiling an outdoor “Blacktop” version of its trendy Pump sneakers. Whereas roughly 92 percent of teenage male consumers previously preferred Nike to any other athletic footwear brand, that number plunged into the mid-70s as the calendar turned to 1993.

“Three was a lot of pressure,” former Nike advertising director Scott Bedbury said. “We needed to get the edge back with teenage males. We gave that brief to Wieden + Kennedy, and then we held onto our seats.”

What Nike’s longtime advertising agency came back with was an honest, thought-provoking commercial that challenged social norms. Notoriously outspoken Phoenix Suns star Charles Barkley boldly and defiantly declared that he was not a role model and that kids should be taught to emulate their parents, not athletes or celebrities.

“Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” Barkley concluded.

The commercial first aired roughly two years after one of Barkley’s most controversial moments. In March 1991, the NBA suspended Barkley for one game and fined him $10,000 after he tried to spit at a racist heckler seated courtside in New Jersey but ended up hitting an 8-year-old girl.

There are conflicting opinions as to exactly who came up with the premise for the Nike spot.

Most at Nike recall the commercial being the brainchild of Jim Riswold, the brilliant Wieden + Kennedy creative director responsible for numerous beloved spots from that era including the Bo Knows campaign and ads pairing Michael Jordan with Spike Lee and with Bugs Bunny.

“I had overheard Charles talk on the subject, reformulated his words and made it into a commercial,” Riswold said. “It’s basic advertising. You find out what’s special about an athlete or person, and you write a spot that reflects that. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s a good rule of thumb.”

In his aptly named 2002 memoir, I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It, Barkley takes credit for coming up with the concept.

“Nike didn’t come to me with the idea to do a commercial about role models — I went to Nike with that idea,” Barkley wrote.

“I just thought we as a society needed to do better in that area. So I asked, and Nike said, cool.”

How was the commercial received?

If Barkley’s purpose in making the commercial was to spark a discussion, he succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations.

Everyone from sports radio callers, to fellow sports stars, to the national media contributed to a rancorous national debate over whether athletes have a duty to set a good example for the kids who look up to them.

Some argued Barkley made a valid point in the commercial — that parents are better positioned than athletes to teach the value of hard work or right from wrong. Others condemned Barkley for shirking his responsibility as an influential celebrity and making excuses for his previous boorish behavior.

“The first time I got hit really hard was for taking that stance,” Barkley wrote in his 2002 memoir. “There were some columnists that defended me but mostly I got killed. I’m okay with it, though, because nobody in all this time has been able to convince me that it’s wrong to tell kids to listen to their parents and not a basketball player they’ve never met.”

Among Barkley’s most outspoken critics was a fellow elite power forward and alumnus of the Dream Team. In an essay entitled One Role Model to Another published in the June 14, 1993, issue of Sports Illustrated, Utah Jazz star Karl Malone wrote that being a role model was not Barkley’s decision to make.

“We don't choose to be role models,” Malone wrote. “We are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.

“I don't think we can accept all the glory and the money that comes with being a famous athlete and not accept the responsibility of being a role model, of knowing that kids and even some adults are watching us and looking for us to set an example. I mean, why do we get endorsements in the first place? Because there are people who will follow our lead and buy a certain sneaker or cereal because we use it.”

The fervent debate the role model spot inspired is as much a source of pride for Barkley as anything he accomplished in his decorated basketball career.

“I think he’s enormously proud of it,” Barkley’s longtime agent Marc Perman said. “That commercial aired 26 years ago, and people are still discussing it. His point was that we should be looking at other people as role models besides sports stars, and I think he still feels really strongly about that.

“If he had said it in a less evocative, more ambiguous way, people wouldn’t have noticed it. That to me was the genius of it.”

Did the potential for backlash worry Nike?

Before he greenlit a controversial commercial like Barkley’s role model spot, Bedbury typically would approach Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight to gauge his opinion.

Seldom did Knight ever give him a straight answer.

“He’d say, ‘What do you think?’ ” Bedbury recalled. “And I’d tell him we were going to run with it. And he’d say, ‘Great, don’t screw it up.’ You’d just try to read his body language to see if you were really doing something crazy or not, but he hardly ever took the power away from people he trusted.”

The role model commercial had Knight’s support even if it opened Nike up to criticism over the hypocrisy of Barkley endorsing a product while simultaneously urging viewers not to follow his example. Knight believed in Barkley’s message and was smart enough to recognize the debate sparked by the commercial would extend its reach and be good for brand awareness.

That Knight would back such a polarizing commercial was no surprise to anyone familiar with his approach, nor was it a shock that Wieden + Kennedy would come up with it. Knight empowered Nike’s longtime agency to do fresh, provocative advertising that epitomized Dan Wieden’s philosophy — that in order to create cutting-edge commercials, someone usually needs to be cut.

“There was a feeling inside the company that Knight wanted us to take risks,” said Jerome Conlon, Nike’s former Director of Brand Planning and Marketing Insights. “He wasn’t averse to controversy as long as the athletes were portrayed in a truthful way.”

At the height of the backlash over Barkley’s role model spot, Nike was also facing criticism over another of its commercials. The National Stuttering Project advocated a boycott of Nike for how it treated Porky Pig’s stuttering in its Hare Jordan campaign featuring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny.

Any concerns Bedbury had about the flack Nike was taking melted away when Knight paid him a visit.

“The day we stop getting those boycotts is the day you brush up your resume,” Bedbury recalls Knight telling him. “Don’t worry about it.”

Why Barkley couldn’t wear his NBA jersey in the ad

It’s no coincidence that Barkley is shown in generic Nike gear in the role model spot instead of his Phoenix Suns jersey.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern wouldn’t authorize the use of NBA licensed apparel in the commercial because he staunchly disagreed with Barkley’s stance.

'David thought it was the wrong message," said Mark Thomashow, Nike's former senior director of business affairs and brand marketing. "I said, 'David, Do you understand that Charles wanted to do this ad?’ Charles wanted to tell parents, ‘I can’t be a role model for your kid. Your kid doesn’t know me. I can be an athletic hero, but a role model should be a mom, a dad, an aunt, an uncle, someone the kid has contact with.’

"David didn’t buy that, and probably for about 15 or 20 years he still didn’t buy it. I’d see him every year at the All-Star Game, and he’d tell me he still didn’t like the ad."

Before Stern retired in February 2014, Thomashow came up with the ideal gag gift for the longtime NBA commissioner. It was a T-shirt with two equal-sized photos, a fierce one of Barkley labeled "Not a role model" and a serene one of Stern captioned "Role model."

“Last year, I went to see him and he came out wearing the shirt,” Thomashow said. “He has a wonderful sense of humor."

Three fun facts

1. Whereas many grandiose Nike commercials are filmed over multiple days, the austerity of the role model spot ensured it didn’t require nearly that long. Recalled director Joe Pytka, “I think it took us maybe an hour to shoot it.”

2. One year after the role model spot aired, it inspired a funny line in another Nike commercial featuring Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell at a barbershop. Sprewell asked his Golden State Warriors teammate how Barkley responded to Webber’s thunderous behind-the-back transition dunk on him. Joked Webber, “He said, ‘I don’t believe in role models, but you mine.’ ”

3. In a promo that aired before he hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live last year, Barkley spoofed the role model spot with one declaring that he’s also not a comedian.

Impact on pop culture

The toughest question to answer just over a quarter century after the role model spot first aired is whether Barkley’s message actually inspired meaningful change.

Are parents doing a better job taking responsibility for teaching their kids right from wrong? Or do too many kids still look to their favorite sports heroes for inspiration on how to behave?

Tim Delaney, sociology professor at SUNY Oswego, conducted surveys in 1994, 1999, 2005 and 2015 asking college students if they have a sports hero currently or if they had one as a child. The percentage of respondents who said yes to either question has remained fairly constant, though there has been an uptick among female students, presumably because there are more female athletes getting media coverage today than there were in the 1990s.

What that small slice of data suggests to Delaney is that today's kids continue to look up to athletes and draw inspiration from them just like previous generations of children did. Barkley's message may have sparked widespread discussion, but it probably didn't significantly alter behavior patterns.

"To the ultimate question of what kind of impact Charles Barkey's famous ad had, I would say it really hasn't changed things," Delaney said. "There have always been young people who will say that their parents or some family member is their primary source of inspiration, but for the majority of kids, if you ask them if they have a sports hero, they're going to say yes."

The impact of the role model spot on the reputations of Barkley and Nike is far more clear.

For Barkley, it reinforced his image as an outspoken truth teller, as someone willing to say what is on his mind no matter the consequences. For Nike, it was the jolt of brazen candor the brand needed to regain its edge.

“In a politically correct environment where everyone is concerned about what they’re saying, it was refreshing to hear someone speak the truth,” Conlon said. “A lot of what Wieden + Kennedy did was highly produced, glossy, glitzy ads. The Barkley ad introduced an element of realism and truthfulness that people were looking for from brands. In terms of the complexity of Nike’s brand character, it made it more real.”

One last behind the scenes story

Nike's 2018 Colin Kaepernick ad was as polarizing as Charles Barkley's role model spot. (Getty)
Nike's 2018 Colin Kaepernick ad was as polarizing as Charles Barkley's role model spot. (Getty)

The modern-day Nike ad to which the role model spot is most often compared is the one featuring Colin Kaepernick from last September.

In a February speech at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Knight said greenlighting that campaign was a more difficult call, one he might not have made were it not for a conversation with LeBron James weeks earlier.

At the time, Knight was nervous about his grandsons who were poised to get their driver’s licenses. LeBron confided in him that his eldest son would soon start driving and he feared that being an African-American teen driving a fancy car could make him more susceptible to being shot by a policeman.

“I thought of the top 100 worries I have, and that doesn’t make my list,” Knight said. “That was a real eye-opener.”

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