During the last week, I’ve watched the Patriots videotape fiasco unfold with interest. For those who don’t follow professional football, the New England Patriots were caught videotaping the New York Jets defensive signals, a direct violation of NFL rules. In response, the NFL fined Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach, $500,000 and the Patriots team $250,000. Then, NFL Commissioner Goodell ordered the Patriots “to surrender next year’s first-round draft choice if it reaches the playoffs, and second- and third-round picks if it doesn’t.” (link)
Following the fines and loss of draft choice, Belichick issued a statement:
I accept full responsibility for the actions that led to tonight’s ruling. Once again, I apologize to the Kraft family and every person directly or indirectly associated with the New England Patriots for the embarrassment, distraction and penalty my mistake caused. I also apologize to Patriots fans and would like to thank them for their support during the past few days and throughout my career. (link)
I will give him credit for accepting responsibility. However, we aren’t talking about a rookie mistake. He’s been in the NFL since 1976. According to reports, Belichick has less than a stellar reputation for personal behavior in general. For example, Belichick reacted poorly when his assistant took the head job for the Jets and refused to acknowledge Peyton Manning after the Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC championship. In some ways, this situation is less about Belichick’s personal behavior and more about our expectations.
This situation got me thinking about how we look towards professional sports figures, and really most any public figure, as role models. How fair is it, is it even realistic, to hold these human beings to a higher level? Does being paid huge amounts of money, combined with public exposure grant them an extra measure of self control not available to the general public? Why are we surprised when a professional athlete like Michael Vick breaks the law? Isn’t he just as human and fallible as everyone else in the world? Public adoration and big checks do not make individuals more perfect, so why do we have that expectation?
There’s often talk that public figures “owe it” to their fans to be role models. But I’m not convinced they owe us anything. After all, aren’t we ultimately in control of their big paychecks and publicity? Isn’t that the social contract between the public and public figures, if they misbehave we withdraw our financial support and attention? When did being a role model get added as a clause to the contract?
This argument isn’t an excuse for bad behavior by celebrities. Instead, I pose that we’re past due for a reality check. During the last week, we’ve seen General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker report to Congress on the current situation in Iraq, but what’s had equal if not greater attention? Whether Britney Spears still has a career after the VMAs. Would sites like TMZ or Perez Hilton exist without our active participation? We have a bad habit of shaking our finger at misbehaving public figures while scrolling through their latest peccadilloes with the other hand. What kind of role model does that make us?