(The Root) — There has been little to celebrate in media in recent weeks — particularly if you are a black American. In addition to this week’s tragic Navy yard shooting, of which the alleged perpetrator, Aaron Alexis, was black, there was a report from the U.S. Census Bureau that the majority of American children of color are living in poverty.
Then, of course, there was the return to the airwaves of one of black America’s most embarrassing minstrel shows, also known as Basketball Wives, in which former wives and never-were-wives of professional athletes reinforce every negative stereotype of black women and all women as nothing more than ambitious entrepreneurs in the field of marrying well or getting pregnant by a rich man. The men, of course, do themselves no favors. As Judge Judy likes to remind all of those who appear before her to sue an ex, “He’s an idiot, but you picked him.” So for anyone who criticizes the women on these types of shows, let’s not forget that these men picked them — and it probably wasn’t because they were hypnotized by these ladies’ charming personalities and intellects.
Which is why the recent headlines about New York Giants player Prince Amukamara are so refreshing. The 24-year-old NFL player shared in an interview with Muscle and Fitness magazine that because of his religious beliefs, he is a virgin. The New York Post trumpeted the news by hailing him as the “black Tim Tebow,” a reference to the devoutly religious white football player whose conservative values and Christian faith made him popular with middle America. Also noteworthy about Amukamara: He doesn’t drink, and his fiancee was told that he managed a Gap store when she first agreed to go out with him, making it less likely that she was plotting a future turn on Football Wives.
Amukamara is not the first professional athlete to publicly admit that he has chosen to abstain before marriage. Basketball player A.C. Green also generated headlines in the 1980s and ’90s for his choice to wait until marriage. But Amukamara appears to be the first high-profile black athlete to do so in the social media age, which also happens to be an age in which sexualized behavior has become more commonplace and glorified in media, including on programs like Basketball Wives.
By any definition, Amukamara sounds like a wonderful role model. While the black community has plenty of positive role models, our community has struggled with positive role models who not only set great examples but are also perceived as cool. While it’s easy to dismiss this as relevant criteria for a role model, the reality is that celebrities are more likely to have a greater influence on kids than someone who is simply kind, professionally successful and responsible but not famous with a flashy life.
This is why President Obama’s influence has in some ways been immeasurable. He is the most powerful man in the free world, is black and wealthy with an attractive wife whom he married before starting and raising a family with her — and he got this lush life not through basketball or music or movies but through attending Harvard Law School. Thanks to him, there are boys who have now added “president” to the list of things they say they want to be when they grow up, right alongside rapper and athlete. But the president is one man. We need others who can help send the message that successful and responsible can be cool.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being an athlete or with an athlete being a role model. I consider Arthur Ashe one of my role models to this day. But too many athletes are role models for the wrong reasons, namely for being good at the game, not for being good people. In 2008 it was revealed that NBA great Karl Malone had fathered a child with an underage girl while he was in college. (She was 13 years old.) Not only was he never prosecuted, but he battled for years to avoid paying child support. Malone was regularly praised and positioned as an everyman role model, so much so that a statue stands in his honor in Utah, where he spent most of his basketball career.
Amukamara is the kind of athlete who genuinely is a role model, on and off the field. He just also happens to have a job of which many kids dream. Since AIDS remains one of the leading causes of death for African Americans ages 19 to 44, and the majority of black children are born out of wedlock — a reality that plays a significant role in the poverty numbers in our community — it is refreshing to see a black male role model who is defying negative stereotypes and reinforcing positive behaviors, all while holding down a “cool” job. If Amukamara is given the same level of media coverage and endorsements as Tebow (and he should), then he could end up effecting some serious positive change in the black community.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.