The debate that gained momentum with Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, and Karl Malone in the early 1990's has been reignited with the story of LeBron James. Who are heroes and role models in today's society?
History provides a number of examples of sports stars who were heroes, not because of what they accomplished in sports, but because of what they fought and sacrificed for away from sports in their personal, albeit public, lives.
What is the role of sports stars in today's world? Are they heroes? Role models? Simply highly paid, highly visible personas?
In this year's NBA Finals, James provided a case study in celebrity.
Many people have argued that James forfeited the titles of hero and role model, based on a parade of poor decisions from declining to join other players in condemning China's human rights history to "The Decision" to his condescending statements addressing his "haters" following the NBA Finals.
One writer observed that James consistently failed to take a stand:
"We want clarity. We want heroes and villains. We want successes and failures, betrayals and redemptions, comedy and drama... And that’s where LeBron James ultimately comes up short."
On the other hand, that may be precisely what eventually qualifies James as a hero in today's society.
In ancient Greece (the birthplace of the Olympics and spectator sports), "hero" was a somewhat ambiguous word, with heroes such as Achilles, Hercules, and Odysseus having their share of character flaws.
The Greeks' heroes were not merely larger than life personas; they also represented humanity's struggle to overcome personal and external obstacles, in order to serve higher values.
Who, then, is LeBron James? It depends if he overcomes, or if he succumbs.