It’s hard to care about this year’s Super Bowl. After all, the Steelers eliminated the Jets, and the Packers dispatched the Giants. And, so, it is not surprising that New Yorkers are reacting to the big game with an audible Ho-Hum. Except when you mention Steelers’ quarterback Ben Rothlisberger. Even in Pittsburgh, allegiances are tested when it comes to the accused (but not charged) rapist. The fact that he is presumed innocent – – and that his accuser has her own credibility problems – – is ignored. Social media websites have convicted him. Perhaps not of sexual misconduct but of the lesser included offences of ethical lapses and unsportsmanlike conduct. He is a role model, the argument goes, and should be held to a higher standard.
It is a conflict for the ages. How often are we confronted with exceptional athletes or brilliant politicians who also are morally-challenged? David Dinkins and George Bush (the father) were reputed to be the nicest, most honorable politicians of the late 20th century. They were also among the worst leaders in modern history. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton are heroes for having presided over years of military and economic policies that brought peace and prosperity to most Americans. Their ethical backbones, however, were fractured. What do I want as an American, a great but unethical leader? Or a moral powerhouse who leads the nation to disaster? The truth is that we do not much care about the ethics of our leaders – – until a scandal breaks and then we just enjoy the fallout. It is much easier to express moral indignation than a coherent reaction to fiscal monetary policy. For most, we do not much care how we are governed – – we just want prosperity, peace, and liberty. We can excuse the occasional Monica Lewinsky or Marilyn Monroe, as long as we can pay our bills and stay out of the army. But, our ethical compass seems to rise in synch with interest rates.
Let’s face it, you’d rather watch Tiger Woods play golf than your local Rabbi. Brett Farve is still the most popular quarterback in history, despite his unusual approach to text messaging. I bet if you scratched the surface of most professional athletes or politicians, you will find ethical shortcomings. I’d win that bet, not because of anything unique to sports or politics, but because humanity is frail with moral missteps. Read the bible or any history text if you have any doubts. It is much easier to throw a football or give a good speech than to lead an unadulterated moral life. But, ordinary folks do not have to contend with the glare of the spotlight or dirt-digging voyeurs and so our secrets usually remain meticulously hidden from public view. The pornography industry is a $14 billion annual business. That’s one inappropriate movie for every man, woman, and child in the world. If we applied an ethics-test to our politicians, athletes, celebrities, and reality TV stars, those industries would collapse. I wonder how many of the people casting stones at Ben Rothlisberger have engaged in their own unethical conduct. I would guess most.
I am not excusing any of this nor am I championing immorality. The bible and social law require us to admonish our friends when they engage in morally questionable behavior. We have a duty to eliminate unethical norms and to publicly protest transgressors. We are good at that. But, our role-models should not be professional athletes or corrupt politicians. Because they are far too susceptible to temptation and self-gratification, they are also hardly the standard bearers for ethical behavior. We can enjoy their skill and prowess without mimicking their behavior. We can appreciate competition and excellence without yielding the argument to those we would not emulate. And, we can root, root, root for the home team without fear that we are also condoning unethical behavior.
Many would disagree. The counter-argument is that if enough people boycotted the Steelers or if moral outrage was loud enough, Rothlisberger would be out of a job and a strong message would be sent – – not only to the athletes but to our children: unacceptable behavior is not tolerated regardless of its perpetrator. Perhaps, the consequences would deter others from misconduct. If those lessons could be learned, I would be the first to cancel my Super Bowl party. But, we don’t learn. That’s the point. We hypocritically cluck our tongue and shake our heads. We post angry messages on Facebook. And, then we engage in our own immoral conduct – – which has a much harsher impact on our children than anything Michael Vick is accused of doing. The problem is not the reaction to the misconduct of our heroes. The problem is how we choose them in the first place.