Role Model Standards Are in Flux

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Marble Falls       I admit it.  When I started thinking about the day, Novak Djokovic, the deported tennis star and his arrogant and narcissistic vaccination position was on my mind, and how athletes were poor choices as role models in society.  Then Martin Luther King, Jr. popped into my head which was a strange combination, despite holiday, but the thought that coupled both of them together was the fact that they are, or in King’s case, were, great, perhaps unequaled at what they did, but of course neither were perfect, nor should anyone have expected them to be.

            Mostly the burden of being seen as a role model, especially for young children, has faded over the years.  It was always especially inexplicable when sports stars were held up in this regard.  Their place in the public pantheon is based on their unparalleled physical abilities and mental discipline that allows them to excel in a specialized area.  The stars have many outstanding attributes, but character is not a baseline requirement outside of game day, so to speak.  We now know that in the halcyon days gone by when some stars were held up as role models for young people it was mainly aided and abetted by a media practice of keeping silent about the private life and practices of these stars.

The same was true for other public figures of course including politicians and even civil rights leaders.  Times change.  Thank goodness!  Some weather the changes and some do not.  Poor Djokovic seems clueless that he couldn’t get away with his selfish self-certification around his health and his minimal commitment, I should say disregard, for the health of the community required of us all.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that tennis didn’t care if he played, only the Australian government cared.  In the same way that the NBA doesn’t care if Kyrie Irving only plays for the Nets on away games, not home games in New York City, requiring vaccinations, or the NFL after the weird rants on this issue by the Green Bay Packers quarterback. Unfortunately, they all have some impact as celebrities and public figures, but role models, oh please, say it’s not so.

Some institutions still have standards about these kinds of character issues.  The head of the giant bank, Credit Suisse, shared some of the day’s headlines as he was terminated after only a year on the job – and apologized – for breaching Covid protocols.  You can keep a job at a major bank it seems despite paying fines for money laundering, deceiving customers, and discriminating in lending, but not breaking Covid protocols it seems.  Would the customers have even known about his breach or cared?  The president of the esteemed University of Michigan was summarily fired for an “inappropriate” relationship with a subordinate by the trustees.  Did the students see him as a role model for his personal life?  I doubt it.  These were hardly public figures and presumably were especially talented in their fields.  They weren’t role models for the public of course, but their institutions saw them as standard bearers for their workforces and constituencies.  They broke what Lou Holtz, when coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks, the “do right rule.”

The sports stars like LeBron James or Steph Currey realize that they need to set standards, role models or not, for their industries or in the case of former Saints quarterback Drew Brees apologize quickly when they flub up as he did over the flag and Black Lives Matter.  It’s clearly not because their sports are better or worse than other businesses, schools or banks, but likely better for them personally.  This is a not necessarily a calculation about what’s best for society, as much as it might be about the market and their brands, although I cringe when I say that because I’m a huge fan of James and Currey, including their political and social comments, so I still hope it speaks to their special character and integrity.

Maybe nothing has changed.  Maybe some just keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and are wary of what political philosopher Herbert Marcuse, speaking of the media, called the “flesh-eating machine.”  Bottom line if you’re looking for a role model, you better look inside yourself rather than the daily news, the Amazon webpage, or on Walmart shelves.  You’re not going to find it anywhere else.