Several years ago, former National Basketball Association star Charles Barkley got a lot of attention when an advertising campaign featured him declaring, "I am not a role model." But based on the increasing number of NBA players arrested in recent years, few parents would want their kids to emulate pro basketball players.
The NBA Finals this year garnered the lowest television ratings in its history, and some say the league's image has fallen at the same alarming rate. One possible reason - more and more of the players are in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Los Angeles Lakers star guard Kobe Bryant's current legal problems are just the latest in a series of NBA players running into trouble with the law. The 24-year-old Bryant was charged with a single count of felony sexual assault against a 19-year-old woman at an exclusive spa. She worked at the resort where Bryant was staying when he came to Colorado for knee surgery.
If convicted, Bryant faces four years to life in prison, or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine of up to $750,000. The Lakers star is free on a $25,000 bond. At a news conference last week with his wife by his side, Kobe admitted having sex with the woman, but said the act was consensual.
"I'm innocent, you know. I did not force her to do anything against her will. I'm innocent," he said. "Together my wife and I and our family, we are going to fight these false accusations. We have a lot at stake, I have a lot at stake and that's not just, has nothing to do with the game of basketball, nothing to do with endorsements. Nothing at all. This is about us."
But Bryant's case is just the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents involving NBA players. In just the past few weeks, Orlando Magic point Guard Darrell Armstrong was arrested for fighting with a female police officer outside an Orlando nightclub and Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudemire was arrested for a third time on drug charges. Washington Wizards guard Jerry Stackhouse was charged with misdemeanor assault and Atlanta forward Glenn Robinson was suspended for the first three games next season after being convicted of domestic battery and assault of his ex-fiancée.
In high-profile cases in the past few years, former Golden State Warrior Latrell Sprewell, now with the New York Knicks, was suspended 68 games after attacking and choking then-coach P.J. Carlesimo. Allen Iverson of Philadelphia has been in trouble with the law a number of times over drug and gun charges.
But Nova Lanktree, Executive Vice President of Player Marketing at CSMG, a sports representation, marketing and consulting group in suburban Chicago, told VOA Sports that blaming the NBA is too simple. "I do not think I would attribute it to something being wrong with the NBA," she says. "I think I would probably address it more towards the individuals not knowing how to handle their fame and fortune."
Ms. Lanktree pointed out that the problem is not exclusive to the NBA. "There is something very pervasive going on in sports right now. In the past few years we have had several situations where athletes have been convicted, arrested or not necessarily exonerated, and still come back with flying colors," she says. "But what we are not talking about are the social implications of all of this -- which I think is a more critical part of the issue."
Nova Lanktree believes there is a double standard in the way authorities treat athletes. "We do have some kind of unconditional affection and admiration and actually adoration for athletes who produce. What we are seeing is a standard that applies to them that does not apply to the average guy," she says. "The average guy gets arrested or is on trial and has a hard time getting his life back on track. We see repeatedly in sports these guys go through things the average man could not go through and resume normal lifestyles."
Basketball fans in downtown Washington seem tired of the player's antics, but still love the game. Christopher Brown told VOA Sports:
"I think it is because half of them are overpaid and they are not playing for the love," says NBA fan Christopher Brown. "Like in college sports and NBA, it is just getting too hectic. I think it's the money they are being paid."
But does that make Mr. Brown any less of a fan of the NBA? "No. I think if you are a fan of basketball, you love basketball -- you like to see it."
David Peters, visiting the nation's capital from Oregon, sounded more disgusted. "In our society, NBA players are now the heroes. They're supposed to be the role models," he says. "Nowadays, I don't even let my children wear NBA or other sports apparel, because the professional sports people, they've turned into anti-heroes."
But what can be done to stop the trend?
"The issue, then, is ownership," says Mark Johnston, a NBA fan from Florida. "You know, the ownership of the teams -- is that the kind of player they want on the team? So I think the pressure has to be put on the owners as much as the players themselves."
But whether the owners or the players are held responsible, one thing seems clear: if National Basketball Association players continue to disappoint fans' expectations by committing crimes, the fans are going to be less and less willing to watch them on TV or to pay inflated prices to go to games.