Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I’m Not Paid To Be A Role Model

"I'm not paid to be a role model. I'm paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court." – Charles Barkley

Every time I read about the excesses of professional athletes and entertainers I am reminded of this quote and subsequent commercial given by Charles Barkley. Although he received a lot of criticism for the ad what he stated remains true. It has always amazed me how we as a society place the responsibility of providing the mores of our society on those who have demonstrated nothing more than a penchant for athletic or artistic ability without regard to their suitability as humans. Tiger Woods is no exception. With his divorce finalized, his personal and professional life in shambles what can we as a society take away from this monumental fall from glory?

I cannot think of any athlete that was better packaged as a commodity than Tiger Woods. He was handsome, articulate, and wholesome. He is the closest any black athlete has come to the all-American image reserved for white athletes and celebrities. And no athlete has capitalized more on this squeaky clean image than Mr. Woods whose empire has been estimated as high as 900 million dollars. But for all of his financial wealth and marketing savvy it appears that Tiger Woods is just another fallible human with all of the frailties and shortcomings as the rest of us. If there was ever an athlete that epitomized the consummate role model it was Tiger Woods. His well crafted image was the envy of many on and off of the golf course. So what went wrong?

What happened to Tiger Woods is not unique in the annals of celebrity or history. It is the result of this cult of celebrity or personality that has been created to market merchandise to our consumer driven society. The problem with this strategy is that in order for it to work there has to be a direct correlation between athletic prowess or celebrity status with ethical behavior. You see in a culture where everyone is ducking responsibility from everything from their children, to their fellow citizens, to life in general. We need these surrogate heroes to provide our children and in many cases ourselves with this hypocritical message. In creating this parallel universe we force these superstars to live up to a standard that no human could possibly maintain. We basically set them up to fail and when they do fail we hold these contrived public apologies to allow ourselves the opportunity to forgive our fallen heroes.

The problem is that we honor people for being heroes who really aren’t heroes at all. Being a great athlete or celebrity does not make you hero in and of itself. What makes one a hero is what one is doing with the God given talent that they have been given to help others. Many of our best athletes and celebrities have proven to be pretty lousy human beings. The truth is that real heroes aren’t good marketing tools. The school teacher who continues to struggle for excellence in a troubled inner city school district, the average Joe who risks his life to save a stranger, or the people who everyday sacrifice their own lives for the benefit of others. These folks aren’t glamorous or exciting. And that’s why in our society we value entertainment over attainment. Style is to be valued over substance. Our children are offered these false idols to emulate without anyone asking the question, “What kind of person is this?”

The true tragedy of Tiger Woods is that we will have learned nothing from this. We will continue to follow this cult of personality. We will continue to reward those who are willing to be prostituted as heroes while the true heroes of our society will be ignored except when they too can be used for marketing purposes. Has our culture become so devoid of true nobility that we have to rely on marketers to tell us what a true hero is? Have we become so enamored with the cult of celebrity that true virtue is now no virtue? While Tiger Woods is the latest victim of this phenomenon this is in no way about him. It is about the larger issue of what do we value as a culture. Are we left to accept the empty characters that are being thrust upon us in an effort to get us to buy more and more crap we don’t need? Although he and many others like him accepted the trappings that went along with his notoriety how many of us know the pressure of trying to appear perfect when you are deeply flawed? And can trying to carry that burden create flaws of its own? Can anyone live up to the expectations we as a society place on these unfortunate ones who happen to excel at some sport or entertain us? Isn’t it enough that they provide us with the entertainment we seek?

I don’t know if Tiger Woods can recover from this episode in his life. I can’t begin to imagine the difficulty of having your life implode while billions of people watch. What I do hope is that we as a society begin to recognize the damage we are causing to not just these people but also to ourselves by creating these false idols. True heroism is not something you do in a stadium, or on a course, or on a stage it is what you do every day in how you live. There are millions of unknown heroes who aren’t paid millions of dollars, who aren’t receiving plaques or awards but none the less they continue to persevere every day in thankless sometimes hopeless circumstances. The time has come for each of us to be our own role models by living up to the ideals we want so desperately to bestow on others.

“Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth.” - Will Rogers

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