The University of Texas at Austin
  • "Real Role Models": The lesser known celebrities

    By Marjorie Smith
    Published: March 1, 2010

    Cover of Real Role ModelsFormer NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said it blatantly: “I am not a role model.”

    But how is that so?

    Barkley had a successful career in basketball, had the fame to follow, and the money to show for it. How do these things not equate to a role model?

    According to the book “Real Role Models: Successful African Americans Beyond Pop Culture” by Joah Spearman, alumnus of the university, and Dr. Louis Harrison Jr., associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, young African Americans need positive and real role models beyond famous celebrities and athletes. Role models such as Leonard Pitts Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from the Miami Herald, or UT’s very own Beverly Kearney, who became the first black woman to coach a team to an NCAA title.

    These role models personify the message of “Real Role Models”: young African Americans have a much greater chance of succeeding through education and hard work — and with a mentor to show them the path.

    The book features 23 successful African American role models who have achieved a high level of success in their chosen fields and who tell their stories to inspire young people to pursue a professional career: stories from Dr. Tim George, chief of pediatric neuroscience at the Dell Pediatric Research Institute; Danyel Smith, editor in chief of Vibe; and Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Party Council.

    Yet for most young African Americans, celebrity rappers such as Jay-Z, and athletes like LeBron James, epitomize success, although the chances of becoming the next LeBron don’t stand up against the facts. According to data presented in the book, only 1.2 percent of all male senior college basketball players will move on to the pros, and only .03 percent of high school male basketball players will land in the pros. Move those same scenarios to football and the percentages only increase to 1.8 percent for college seniors, and .08 percent for high school males, who make it to the pros.

    When asked if he was surprised by the findings, Spearman said, “Not at all.”

    “I went to a high school with dozens of great athletes,” he continued. “One guy was the No. 2 football recruit in the country coming out of high school. Another was Mr. Basketball in our state — a state that also produced NBA All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — none of them made it to the NFL or NBA. That alone reminds me that young people need to view their education as the road map, not their talent alone.”

    Below, Spearman continues to share insights about his book.

    What is the key difference between a real role model and a celebrity role model?
    A real role model realizes that their platform, be it as a celebrity or single mom, comes with responsibilities to set a positive example.

    How did you choose the people who were interviewed for the book?
    We knew Beverly Kearney, UT’s women’s track coach, had an amazing story, but the others were more from word-of-mouth. We’d talk to one person and end up talking to someone we’d never heard of, but who had an equally amazing story.

    What do you hope people take away after reading your book?
    Athletes and entertainers may be famous and wealthy, but there are literally thousands of others, especially in the black community, who are equally deserving of consideration as role models because they reached a high level of success, relied on a solid education and helped others along the way.

    Below, Harrison shares his insights about the book.

    Referring to the data that outlined the likelihood of high school athletes to continue into collegiate and professional athletic careers, were you surprised?
    I have been working with this chart for years and am no longer surprised by the data. In my work I see this data lived out in the lives of young men all the time. I have been trying to share this with young people with every opportunity I get, but it remains largely unknown. This is one reason I participated in the writing of this book and wanted to include this information in it. Far too few people are aware of the astronomical odds against becoming a professional athlete and I would guess the odds are the same for becoming an entertainer. We have young people preparing for a major portion of their lives for a job they will likely never have. The odds are better for becoming a brain surgeon, like Dr. Timothy George. The upside is, if you shoot for being a brain surgeon and don’t make it, you’re likely to land in a good place (nurse, physician’s assistant and more). But when you aim to become a professional athlete and you don’t make it, where will you end up?

    How did you choose the people who were interviewed for the book?
    These Real Role Models were chosen for several reasons. First they were born into challenging circumstances. All came from humble beginnings and therefore had to work very hard to be successful. Secondly, each had a drive, desire and determination to sacrifice and work hard to succeed. Thirdly, after attaining a degree of success, each of these Real Role Models has made the effort to reach back and has given a lot back to help others succeed.

    While these individuals were chosen for inclusion in the book, we don’t see them as overly unique. There are Real Role Models all around us, but they are not looking to be famous. They just go about their business doing what they do without looking for accolades. There are thousands of African American doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, pastors, architects and others who fit the description of a Real Role Model, but they are not featured on ESPN or MTV Cribs

    What do you hope people take away after reading your book?
    We hope young people are able to see greater variety in possibilities for their future. Sometimes we don’t view something as possible because we’ve not seen anyone that looks like us in that position. This book is intended to expand young people’s potential and provide models that expand their realm of career options.

    Listen to Spearman’s interview with KUT and read his blog post for The New York Times.

    Real Role Models” is published by the University of Texas Press.

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