Celebrities have the opportunity to use their disproportionate and sometimes unexplainable fame to pass along good values, priorities and ethical habits to those who admire and follow them. The problem is that the U.S. culture’s current values are in a muddled state, with virtues sometimes being treated as embarrassments, and the enthusiastic embrace of non-ethical goals that once were regarded as the seven deadly sins are now often looked upon as the norm, and even appropriate. Here are some recent events in the strange world of celebrity values:
The Good: This headline on numerous web sources piqued my interest: “Dylan Sprouse Defends Restaurant Host Job.” Dylan Sprouse is a former Disney child star, a long time lead, with his brother, on the long-running “The Suite Life of Zach & Cody,” one of those loud, hyper-frenetic tween comedies that Disney and Nickelodeon acquire from some production company in Hell. Dylan was seen working in a restaurant, and this immediately spawned multiple rumors that he was broke, had blown through his millions, and was, in brief, a pathetic loser….because he has the same kind of job most American twenty-somethings fresh out of college would be thrilled to have.
Thus Dylan, who along with his brother decided to get out of the child star rat-race that has recently put Lindsay Lohan in rehab, Amanda Bynes in a mental health treatment facility and Miley Cyrus naked on a wrecking ball, and start a more conventional life with a college education (at NYU). Sprouse decided to address the weird criticism being sent his way on social media and in the gossip blogs by writing,
“I did not take this job because I ‘lost all my money,’ I am financially secure, and took this job as a way to primarily feed my over bountiful video game addiction. I also took this as a way to try a new experience, working somewhat below the means I’m used to, as well as a way to socialize and get out of the house…I feel most comfortable when I’m working and doing something, to criticize someone of that is pretty odd. I will potentially return to acting someday, but in no way do I think any experience is a step down for me, but rather a new step in another direction.”
A few years ago, he had explained the decision to drop out of show biz for academia by saying,
“Historically, Disney Channel stars don’t survive well outside of the Disney environment . . . we decided that we should go and get a higher education [and also] give time for people to forget about us,” he said. “If we left and returned four years later after we’ve grown, gained an education, looked physically different . . . it would only do good for us.”
Wow…what’s the matter with this kid?
The Bad: The revolting—but talented—Kanye West, having just inflicted the horrendous name of “North West” on his helpless infant, after impregnating his famous-for-being-famous girl friend Kim Kardashian to acquire said victim, naturally with no intention of actually marrying her, since everyone knows that young American black men need no encouragement to marry the women they knock up, gave a typically immodest interview on the BBC that was an orgy of self-love of the sort that most adults are supposed to grow out of by the age of, say, 25 at the latest. This prompted the equally revolting—but not as talented—late night TV show host Jimmy Kimmel–-he who persuades parents to play cruel tricks on their own children to create hilarious videos for Jimmy’s show—to mock West’s interview by having it re-enacted by 10-year-olds actors. This, in turn, prompted West, who has the temperament as well as the ego of a 10-year-old, to launch a series of hysterical, obscene all-caps attacks at Kimmel via Twitter.
Slate pop culture writer, Forrest Wickham, actually defends West in this celeb-war. Why? Because, Wickham concludes, it’s reasonable for West to boast how great he is, because he is great. Wrong. It pains me to ever say Jimmy Kimmel is correct about anything, but Jimmy Kimmel, for once, is. The assessment should be that West sounds like a pompous, self-absorbed jerk in the interview because that’s exactly what he is, a cautionary tale of how the talented, successful and famous among us too often forget that they still have the same obligations or conduct and deportment we do. Truth is not a defense for entitlement, ostentatious pride, boastfulness and immodesty. West’s rant on Twitter proves the point: this guy really thinks he’s so special that he can’t be ridiculed even when he’s ridiculous.
The Ugly: Robinson Cano is the best player on the New York Yankees, a power-hitting, slick fielding second baseman. He will be a free agent this winter, which means he can sell his services to the highest bidder. His team, the only one he has ever known, is reeling; it has missed the play-offs for only the second time in two decades, it is stuck with multiple multi-million dollar long-term contracts owed to players who are old, crippled, declining, or, in the case of shameless steroid cheat Alex Rodriquez, all of these and an embarrassment too, and it is in general panic and disarray. The New York Yankees need Cano badly. Nobody suggests that the Yankees should go cheap on Robbie, or that he should accept less than a fair price for his services and talents, but one might expect a lifetime Pinstriper not to use the desperate straits of his team to squeeze every cent possible out of its coffers, making it more difficult for the team to make other much-needed repairs.
So what do we learn, days after the Yankees are eliminated from post-season contention and the day after relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, the Yankee stalwart who has been its foundation made his final trip to the mound? Robinson Cano wants a ten year, $300 million dollar contract, by far the richest contract any professional athlete has ever signed.
Greed is not unethical; it’s a non-ethical motivation that often leads to unethical conduct. However, Cano’s initial demands reveal a Kanye West level of entitlement, as well as a values deficit. He lives in a society where unemployment is high and salaries are stagnant. Money is not a limitless resource, not even for the New York Yankees. At the level he is seeking, his salary will result in other players, perhaps many other players, getting less money, at least in the short term. In the long term, if he were to be successful in his extortion, it would lead to salary inflation across the board, meaning that fans would have to pay more for tickets and merchandise.
The demand is not merely selfish, disloyal and ego-centric. It doesn’t merely make athletes in general look crass and materialistic. It’s pointless. Cano earned fifteen million in 2013 alone. At a certain point that he has almost certainly passed, money is just numbers: all it means is ego satisfaction, “keeping score,” as the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce once told me. And the fact that the loss of the money and its availability will cause far more pain to many others than any pleasure it can possibly provide Cano doesn’t trouble him one bit. Tell me, Robbie…what can you do that is worth doing with $30,000,000 a year that you can’t do with $15,000,000? I can’t imagine, and I have a pretty good imagination.
Yeah, I know: he can start a charitable foundation. Get back to me after you look up the record of gazillionaire pro-athlete foundations. It is disgraceful. Somehow, I don’t think Cano is out to be the next Andrew Carnegie. I think he just wants to be the highest-paid player, and if it hurts his team and its fans, and makes baseball players look like greedy and arrogant tycoons, so what?
There is a limit to what an employee can be paid and still be relied upon as an employee, and I am waiting for some player to prove it. Let’s say Cano signs the ten year contract, gets his 30 million on top of his current nest egg, and just quits after one year, saying, “Hey…what do I need to play ball for? I’m rich already! I’m going to collect my pension and lie on the beach.” What good is a long-term contract that gives the employee incentive not to fulfill it?