So that’s the lesson, is it?
As the year end lists almost unanimously “award” Tiger Woods the distinction of engineering the Scandal of the Year, pundits also seem to be nearing consensus on the lesson we should take from the golfer’s fall, which is: “Don’t make athletes and celebrities your role models or heroes. They are human beings like everyone else, and are guaranteed to disappoint you.”
Oh, I see…it’s all our fault.
Horse hockey, as M*A*S*H’s Colonel Potter used to say.
Flawed human beings can be excellent heroes and role models, if they care enough about the good they can do to commit to meeting the especially high ethical standards these jobs—and they are jobs–require. When Ulysses S. Grant knew he was going to be President of the United States, he vowed never to take another drink of alcohol, despite being a lifetime alcoholic. The shock of quitting his drinking cold turkey might well have killed him, but Grant believed that the President of the United States must not be a drunk. After legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow was narrowly acquitted of jury tampering in 1912 (yes, he was guilty) by jurors convinced by his argument that he could do the world more good fighting in court for the weak and oppressed than serving a prison sentence, he resolved to change his ways and to try to live up to the heroic image he had painted for himself—and succeeded. He went on to his most important trials, fighting for civil rights, intellectual freedom, and against the death penalty.
It is not as if it is impossible for individuals whose reputations inspire the public to keep that responsibility in mind as they live their lives. It is possible. It just takes determination and sacrifice.
Leaders and parents acquire the same obligations to meet high standards of conduct as athlete heroes. I have not heard any pundits argue that children should not look to their parents as heroes and role models because they are inevitably flawed, but I don’t see how one can make that argument for celebrities and not parents—and Tiger Woods, after all, is both.
We need heroes and role models, and if we do not find them in literature (where they are imagined rather than real) or history (where their flaws can be covered up or argued away), then we will look to the real world. Those who acquire hero and role model status know it, and in many cases (as with Woods) are paid well for the honor and the burden. If they take their responsibility seriously, they will make a special effort not to indulge their human flaws, and to live up to heroic standards, even unreasonable ones.
The chorus of those who want to make Woods the victim, a man who had unfair adulation and idealization weighing down his soul, are largely made up of those who have an ideological objection to virtue generally. They want to lower our expectations for heroes, so we can lower our own standards as well.
Let’s not. Tiger Woods just failed, that’s all. He thought he could have it both ways, like a few lucky icons (Jack Kennedy comes to mind) have done in the past: show the public a heroic face while secretly violating multiple values, even while receiving millions of dollars in incentives to embrace those values intact. His lack of integrity doesn’t make athletes worse candidates for hero status, any more than it suggests that no men are capable of being good husbands and fathers. Those whom society identifies as heroes and role models have a job to do, and it is usually a job with a lot of rewards and benefits. It’s not an easy job, but it can be done.
They just have to want to do it.