The Star Syndrome, a.k.a “The King’s Pass,” #11 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List, is the ethics bane of organizations generally and sports especially. It is one of the major catalysts of cultural corruption, whether the “star” is Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong, Manny Ramirez, O.J. Simpson, Roget Ailes, Brian Williams, George S. Patton, or Werner Von Braun. To refresh your memory…
11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?”
One will often hear unethical behavior excused because the person involved is so important, so accomplished, and has done such great things for so many people that we should look the other way, just this once. This is a terribly dangerous mindset, because celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected whenever it raises its slimy head. In fact, the more respectable and accomplished an individual is, the more damage he or she can do through unethical conduct, because such individuals engender great trust.
Thus the corrupting influence on the individual of The King’s Pass leads to the corruption of others, through…
11. (a) “I deserve this!” or “Just this once!”
Especially common to the hero, the leader, the founder, the admired and the justly acclaimed is the variation on the Kings Pass that causes individuals who know better to convince themselves that their years of public service, virtue and sacrifice for the good of others entitle them to just a little unethical indulgence that would be impermissible if engaged in by a lesser accomplished individual. When caught and threatened with consequences, the practitioner of this rationalization will be indignant and wounded, saying, “With everything I’ve done, and all the good I’ve accomplished for others, you would hold this against me?” The correct answer to this is “We are very grateful for your past service, but yes.“
There are few more striking examples of this phenomenon than women’s soccer star Hope Solo. The New York Times neatly summarizes her last decade of dubious conduct (I’m being diplomatic):
Over the years, as Solo has established herself as the dominant female goalkeeper of her generation, she has also repeatedly tested the patience of the United States soccer federation, clashing with coaches, criticizing teammates and picking fights with former national team stars on social media. In 2014, she was arrested on domestic assault charges that were later dropped before being reinstated this summer, and last year she was with her husband in a team van when he was arrested for driving under the influence. Even her turn on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” a high-profile crossover for U.S. Soccer, ended in controversy after Solo publicly accused her partner of slapping her. (She also declared in her memoir that the show was “rigged” by the producers.)
Concludes the Times:
“It was the sort of conduct that would almost certainly have resulted in a lesser player’s being dropped from the national team roster. But for Hope Solo, who some argue is the greatest goalkeeper in American soccer history, male or female, there was always another chance.”
Hello, Rationalization #11!
How many girls who idolized the attractive, bold, outspoken and imposing star came to regard Solo’s arrogance and lack of respect for others as legitimate and a template for their own behavior? If not that, then how many absorbed the false construct that with productivity and success comes justified immunity from accountability? Another description of the King’s Pass is “Laws are for the little people.”
We’ve heard that one a lot lately.
Ah, but as some stars have discovered to their horror, there may be limits, at least when one’s employer cares about ethics and standards. This week, U.S. Soccer suspended Solo for six months for the inexcusably graceless comments she made two weeks after Swedish women’s team beat the United States in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics. The federation also terminated her contract. Essentially, Hope Solo was fired.
So do ethical values now, finally, reign supreme in women’s soccer? Hardly. The problem is that Hope Solo had just lost, and indicated with her erratic performance in the Olympics that she is “king” no longer. Would U.S. Soccer have dumped her if she had played like the Hope of old and her team had won the gold?
Along with the last match, Solo had lost her deflector shields, her armor, her “Get Out of Jail Free” card. She is mortal now. The double standard no longer applied to her.
The president of U.S. Soccer, Sunil Gulati pointed out, in making the announcement about Solo’s punishment, that the decision to terminate Solo’s contract took into account “past incidents” and “private conversations we’ve had requiring her to conduct herself in a manner befitting a U.S. National Team member.”
No no no, U.S. Soccer, it doesn’t work that way. You don’t let a star escape accountability for years of misconduct, then wait until she’s no longer good enough that you have an incentive to look the other way, and then hit her with all the accumulated punishment she should have received all along. That’s like a spoiled child that a parent lets get away with outrageous behavior because she’s beautiful, a brilliant pupil and a stand-out athlete, and then after she gets cut from the basketball team, flunks algebra and gets acne, the parent beats her into a coma for staying out too late. The organization shares some of the blame for Solo. For years it sent the message that she was allowed to misbehave because she was a great goalie, and she took full advantage of the situation, as most people would. She didn’t become a monster all by herself. She was encouraged, and enabled.
Not that Hope engenders much sympathy, for Solo is Hopeless. Her statement after the boom lowered is exactly what you would expect from a lifetime beneficiary of a double standard:
“For 17 years, I dedicated my life to the U.S. Women’s National Team and did the job of a pro athlete the only way I knew how — with passion, tenacity, an unrelenting commitment to be the best goalkeeper in the world, not just for my country, but to elevate the sport for the next generation of female athletes….”
Translation: “How can you do this to me? I deserve special treatment!” Rationalizations invoked: #11. (a) “I deserve this!” , #13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
“In those commitments, I have never wavered. And with so much more to give, I am saddened by the Federation’s decision to terminate my contract.”
Translation: “I’m not sorry. I’m the victim here. You don’t treat stars this way. Everybody knows that.” Rationalization invoked: #11 The King’s Pass.
“I could not be the player I am without being the person I am…”
Translation: “The ends justify the means.” Rationalizations invoked: #3 Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best;” #41 A. Popeye’s Excuse, or “I am what I am.”
“…even when I haven’t made the best choices or said the right things.
Translation: “This so unfair, and everyone is so ungrateful.” Rationalizations invoked: Rationalization 41 A. Popeye’s Excuse, or “I am what I am,” #19A The Insidious Confession, or “It wasn’t the best choice” (aka “Hillary’s Diversion”), #19. The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!”
“My entire career, I have only wanted the best for this team, for the players and the women’s game and I will continue to pursue these causes with the same unrelenting passion with which I play the game.”
Translation: “It’s not me, it’s you.”
Now that I think about it, that needs to be added to the Rationalizations List: Rationalization #59 (and the 70th over all!) The Paranoid’s Blindness, or Solo’s Lament: “It’s not me, it’s you.”