On the radio this morning I heard a commentary about how to talk to your children about Michael Vick, because this “role model” NFL quarterback has been indicted for running a brutal and illegal dogfighting operation. I found myself wondering why we ascribe the term “role model” to professional athletes whose main claim to fame is that they are celebrities who make a lot of money entertaining fans through sport. Sometimes they get into a lot of trouble; Vick has had his share of ugly headlines. Same for Barry Bonds, the “home run hero” of the moment.
I’m not sure why popular culture reveres professional athletes as “role models” and even “heroes.” Talented? Yes, for the most part, in their one particular position in one sport. Courageous? Hardly, for the most part, albeit we have the occasional triumph-over-adversity stories about athletes. But many regular people triumph over adversity every single day, and millions are more talented in a broader range of more productive human activities. How many lists of popular “role models” are led by critical care nurses, special ed teachers, cancer researchers or advocates for the homeless? Such true heroes are rarely recognized outside of their own communities. We revere soldiers as heroes, but how many of us know their names?
38 years ago this past Friday, some real heroes and role models did something quite extraordinary — the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.” But their story was little remembered amid the media din over Vick, Bonds, Harry Potter, and other real or fictional characters.
The real meaning of a “role model” is someone who sets an example to inspire others. Women’s colleges like Trinity are serious about role models — we have more women leaders than a typical university, from numerous executives and tenured professors to student leaders and alumnae who have achieved considerable status in their professions. We are not celebrities, by and large, but regular people who hope to inspire other women through the example of our own work and achievements. Through the numerous examples we present to students, we are able to show how such achievements are possible, and we inspire succeeding generations to reach their own goals.
Certainly, we can cheer for our favorite teams and celebrate the accomplishments of professional athletes when those accomplishments are genuine, not manufactured. But the real answer to the “problem” of explaining Michael Vick to your children is simply this: let’s stop exalting celebrities — athletes, movie stars, politicians — as “role models” unless or until they do something truly inspirational. And, let’s be clear that fame is not the same as true achievement.
See an interesting opinion on a similar topic in today’s Washington Post by Shankar Vedantam.
See this Sports Illustrated article on Barry Bonds…