“What is character? In the N.F.L., character is need.”
—–New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden, explaining how teams seek to draft players “with character,” a.k.a. “who don’t commit felonies off the field,” unless, of course, the player is especially talented and they need what he has to offer on the field in order to win.
This intellectually dishonest standard is not restricted to pro football. Voters want ethical and honest elected representatives, unless they keep taxes low and deliver goodies to their neighborhoods. Corporations want executives with character too, unless a manipulative, deceitful, scheming whiz makes the company’s profits soar. The student with great promise will be excused or merely admonished for offenses that a school will suspend lesser students for.
The well-documented human tendency to endure unethical conduct from high-level performers while holding less gifted and accomplished individuals to higher standards of character serves to undermine ethics generally, confirming as it does the principle that the prettier, smarter, richer, more powerful, more famous you are, the less obligated you are to care about others, do the right things, or obey the rules.
For this is the Star Syndrome. In the coming months and years, Ethics Alarms and its readers will encounter it often.
This establishes an ethics class system, with an individual’s character being measured on what Rhoden describes as “the sliding scale”: the more valuable an employee is in other respects, the more others are willing to ignore misconduct in judging his or her character. The phenomenon is especially destructive because the truth is exactly the opposite: prominent and successful individuals do more damage when they behave unethically, because they are role models and leaders, and influence others.
Examples for reflection and debate: Ben Roethlisberger, William Jefferson Clinton, Ted Stevens, Charlie Rangel, Manny Ramirez, David Letterman., and more to be discovered.