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Where have all the heroes gone?

December 6, 2009

This whole week, the media has been buzzing with “The Story of Tiger.”  Did Tiger cheat? Did Elin bash him with a golf club instead of try to free him as first reported?  Was he really drunk and it just took so many hours to investigate to let him burn off the buzz…

Blood in the water, bring on the sharks.

We’ve been there before.  Some colleagues and I were having a business lunch today and we rattled off a litany of “priors” that have run the same sad gauntlet of media and public speculation. It’s nothing new, but it IS sad.

Why?  Because people like Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlin, Michael Jackson, President Bill Clinton, Alex Rodriguez, Pete Rose,  Barry Bonds, O.J. Simpson, Britney Spears,  Derek Jeter, Jackie Joyner, Micheal Phelps have something in common, and it’s probably not what you think.

They are all heroes who have disappointed us.

It’s a significant issue.  All those people in the list were public figures that kids idolized.  “I want to be President of the United States someday.”  “I want to be as talented as Michael Jackson.”  “Wow, when I grow up, I want to be just like Tiger.” My own daughter revered Tiger for the longest time; she couldn’t watch a golf tournament in which he didn’t play because, as she’d say, “What’s the point?  He’s the BEST!”

It’s not that we don’t believe these people aren’t human. Certainly they have the same foibles and human “natures” as the rest of us do. But, really, when you become a role model for so many — particularly young people — you have  a certain responsibility.  We EXPECT our role models to be held, and to hold themselves, to a higher standard than the rest of ordinary humanity. When they have so much more, we expect them to be so much more.

Integrity, responsibility, accountability.  Big concepts. Recently I’ve bee nusing this phrase to talk about the “new integrity,” as I call it.  “Integrity is being really, really sorry when you get caught doing wrong, but it’s not what prevents you from doing wrong to begin with.”

And, what’s also disturbing is WHY these kids idolize their heroes to begin with.  Ask a child why they think Alex Rodriguez is their hero, or why they looked up to Britney Spears or Lil Wayne, you’ll likely get the answer “because they’re FAMOUS,” or “they have so much MONEY!” or “Man, they’re so tight!”  Our kids worship these celebrities not for their positive values, but for the fame, fortune, or notoriety they have managed to collect doing what they do in the public eye.

Contrast that with just a few years ago when the most admired individual was Pope John Paul.  This is not to say we should worship religious figures, but think of the “heroes” we had not too long ago:  Mother Teresa, John Glenn, John Wayne (no, they don’t HAVE to be named “John” to be a hero), Neil Armstrong,  Jimmy Stewart, Orel Hershheiser, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Colin Powell, Norman Schwartzkopf…to name a few. 

But, it’s really only a few, when you really stop to think about it. The point is these heroes were people that we respected for their VALUES as much as their fame. They were famous people who were also GOOD people. Celebrities who didn’t let their celebrity become an excuse for being outside the rules of decency.  They didn’t act like they deserved any special treatment or exceptions because they were “famous.”  And, in fact, it’s probably their humility as much as anything else they were known for that made them extra-special.

We all need more real heroes.  Our kids particularly need positive role models that not only accomplish things we admire them for, but also live and practice good character. Celebrities and public figures should particularly know that they are inspiration and examples to so many kids, in so many different situations. As the saying goes, “character is what we are when no one is looking.” This means that our heroes have to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk as a way of living their lives. Because, as so many of our fallen heroes have learned, even when no one is looking, you can bet someone is watching.  And waiting for YOU to be the next one we used to look up to who let us down.

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