As anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows by now, Tiger Woods is sorry for stuff. He never explicitly stated just what, exactly, he was offering his “profound apology” for, though presumably it had something to do with the dozen or so women who came forward with sordid extramarital tales. His apology was mostly directed to his wife and family—and of course his fans. And all the young kids who looked up to him.
Throughout his long career Woods has been held up as a role model, an inspiration to kids everywhere that, with hard work, you too can earn billions and marry a hot blonde supermodel.
Woods, of course, is far from the first professional athlete to cop to bad behavior. Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps, for example, was arrested for DWI, and admitted to drug use. He, too, was publicly admonished for setting a bad example and being a poor role model.
But where did this idea come from, this notion that just because someone is famous he or she is a role model? It’s easy to assume that any celebrity is a “role model” and therefore influencing children. There’s a pop culture cottage industry in asserting that celebrities are seen as role models—and then pointing out just what horrible role models they are.
The catalog of celebrity missteps is endless:
John F. Kennedy’s womanizing made Tiger Woods look like a monk. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized some of his work. Mexican rock star Gloria Trevi falsely claimed she had been raped by a prison guard. Pop star George Michael was arrested for lewdness in a Los Angeles public park. Beloved rapper Tupac Shaker was a rapist and convicted sex offender. Pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was convicted of domestic violence. Guitarist Pete Townsend of The Who was criticized for performing at the Superbowl, having been arrested for child pornography. And so on. A few of these people claimed to be role models, but most were given that label by others.
But did these personal behaviors actually influence anyone? Does anyone wringing their hands over Tiger Woods’s “bad example” really think that young kids believe that when they grow up they won’t need to be faithful to their spouse because “Tiger did it?” Did anyone in the Superbowl audience decide that kiddie porn is okay because Townsend performed? Seriously?
Worrying about celebrities’ influence is easy, as it requires a little speculation and no facts. In October 2007, syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote about his grave concern that Pam Anderson, Paris Hilton, and other “role models” were negatively influencing young women. Goldberg was worried that legions of girls and young women would start paying their debts with sexual favors (I’m not making this up) because Pam Anderson said in an interview that she had sex with her future husband over a poker debt. According to Goldberg, Pam Anderson was clearly a role model for millions of girls who would obviously follow her every action.
The companies that endorse celebrities, of course, have a vested financial interest in supporting the idea that their stars are role models; they spend a lot of money in the belief that what a star eats, wears, or does can move product. There’s a grain of truth to that—high-profile endorsements aren’t worthless—but the influence of celebrities over the beliefs or behaviors of young people has been greatly exaggerated.
Watching an athlete perform, or buying movie ticket or a singer’s download is not the same thing as admiring or idolizing him or her. There is little or no evidence that Tiger Woods, Kate Moss, Britney Spears, Pam Anderson, Lady Gaga, or any other celebrities are actually seen as role models.