Research explores why Michael Phelps, Beyoncé, and others are no role models (nor should they be)
Spurgin, E. (2012). , Hey, How did I become a Role Model? Privacy and the Extent of Role-Model Obligations, Journal of Applied Philosophy.
Young people should learn that Phelps is a proper role model when it comes to swimming, but they do not know enough about the rest of his life to believe he is a proper role model when he is not in the pool. Earl Spurgin, 2012.
Michael Phelps inspired millions this summer, as he swam his way into Olympic history. For many children and adolescents, Phelps is a supreme role model—someone whose life they admire both in the pool and out. But, as anyone who follows the news knows, not all of his behaviors are worthy of emulation. In a new article, Earl Spurgin, a Philosophy professor at John Carroll University, argues that Phelps’ frailty is not the exception. Many public figures are subject to the same mistakes and lapses in judgment as the rest of us. In other words, just because Phelps is the best Olympian of all time, doesn’t mean that his life is always worthy of imitation.
Because of this, Spurgin argues that we need to fundamentally change how we think about role models. Admire the athlete, rapper, actress, etc., but withhold judgment on their lives, and don’t immitate them when they leave the stadium. What’s more, public, athletes, performers, and others are under no particular “role-model obligations,” to live their lives differently from the rest of us just because they happen to be talented in one particular domain.
Here is Spurgin’s logic
- Since it is unrealistic to try to convince public figures to take on virtuous behaviors, values, and stances and/or to display them consistently, young people will inevitably be disappointed.
- Many athletes and performers are late teens and young adults themselves and simply don’t have the life experience or judgement to serve as role models, or to fully understand how their off-stage/court/etc. lives can influence young people.
- Invoking “role-model status” is often a misguided attempt to coerce or pressure a public figure into behaving in ways that are more in line with our value systems. While holding public figures to the same legal standards as anyone else is fair, role-model obligations violate their privacy and freedom to conduct their lives as they choose.
- The very qualities that help one to excel as an athlete, rapper, actor, etc., (i.e., singular focus, egoism, extreme behavior, obsessive control) often render them poor role models. Many of the most popular public figures (Tiger Woods, Lil Wayne), would be disastrous role models.
Implications for youth mentors
Parents and mentors should encourage young people to, according to Spurgin,“ see others as role models only when they have earned it, and to see those people as role models regarding only those aspects of life about which they have earned it. That lesson has far more potential than does the fool’s errand of attempting to convince a multitude of diverse people to satisfy purported role-model obligations that, often, they do not really have.”