For me, it started with Muhammad Ali. I can perfectly recall sitting in the living room with my father, watching as Ali danced around the ring. He moved with a rare mix of fluidity and power, dispatching one rough, plodding opponent after another. He seemed the perfect embodiment of masculine striving. But the best part was after the match had ended. That’s when Ali would unleash one of his verbal rants. Full of braggadocio, Ali would proclaim to the world, “I am the greatest.” And I believed him.
But why? Why was I so willing to listen to Ali? Why do we take any guidance from athletes? In the midst of Tiger Woods’ Thanksgiving day car wreck and his apparent infidelity with multiple women, I can’t help but wonder why we bother to make heroes of our sportsmen.
After all, everything about the lives of our celebrity athletes encompasses abnormality. From a young age, they are conditioned to believe that they are superior in a Darwinian sense. The moment these physical outliers are spotted on playgrounds, they are courted by “street agents” who fill their heads with dreams of dollars, endorsement deals, celebrity and all those other things that fulfill their adolescent desires to be “feared and worshipped.” These promising youths (the fittest, the strongest) are promptly shipped off to shoe-sponsored sports camp where their talents are honed under the adoring gaze of coaches. Money, gifts, promises and special favors from unscrupulous agents, shoe executives and recruiters inevitably follow. And if they hit the big time, their images are beamed across the world with a dreamlike quality based on the persona of the hero.
Along the way, these athletes are sent a message: they–as the fittest are held to a different standard. They need not worry about finances or academic standards when they have agents and business executives dying to take care of those things for them. The effect is only to further separate these children from the social conventions that build character in the rest of us.
This kind of emotional coddling can have a disastrous effect. When you have been trained to believe that you are beyond the rules of social decorum, it seems natural to act out your darker impulses. Indulging your personal vanity can be intoxicating. I suspect that Tiger’s sexual exploits are fairly representative of how most young men, bombarded with wealth and adulation, would act. It should not be surprising that Tiger gave in to his impulses. In fact, it seems like the most human thing in the world.
I say this not to defend Tiger, but merely to point out the absurdity of expecting our star athletes to behave like heroes. The dictionary tells us that a hero is “a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the “drowning child.” What about hitting a golf ball suggests noble courage? Tiger Woods is not a hero. He is a product of pop culture mythology that has become incredibly adept at manufacturing fame.
We live in an era where our star athletes—and our celebrities in general—are treated as our cultural elite. We yearn for a connection to them. It is the height of absurdity that so many people actually feel let down by Tiger’s infidelities. Just as it always struck me as bizarre when public hoards gather outside their homes of recently deceased celebrities (think Michael Jackson or Princess Diana), sobbing uncontrollably. Somehow, we have come to value our celebrities so much that we feel an actual sense of personal connection to them—even when we’ve never met them.
The danger is that we have come to admire celebrities more than real heroes. Charles Barkley famously made this point in 1993 when he declared, “a million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?” Later that year, Barkley filmed a self- written Nike commercial in which he argued that athletes should not be considered role models: “I am not a role model,” Barkley said. “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Barkley knew as well as anyone that the mere fact of being well known is not enough to transform athletes into moral standard bearers. It is fine to admire athletes for their physical striving. But maybe our admiration should end when they walk off the court. Our children are surrounded by real heroes – our military, law enforcement, teachers, community leaders, and most of all, family members. If we feel a sense of personal betrayal by Tiger’s dalliances, perhaps we need to reassess the people we are turning to for moral leadership.
To be sure, Tiger has done a disservice to his family—but only to his family. He does not owe us anything. The real issue is not—as so many people seem to be wondering—whether Tiger Woods can once again be a great role model. It is how our society has so conflated celebrity with greatness that we came to view Tiger as a role model to begin with.