Thursday, February 5, 2009

Michael Phelps Is Not A Role Model

A photograph has appeared of Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming multi-gold medalist, smoking marijuana. From the outcry you would think Western civilization was coming to an end. There have also been reports and photographs of Phelps at strip clubs receiving lap dances. Isn't it interesting, however, that these did not provoke the same negative response?

But what did people expect of Michael Phelps? He is a young man who has devoted practically his entire short life to one act - swimming. Every day he swam; he ate a mountain of food; he sat on the couch with his dog and watched television. This is what he did, year after year after year. His commitment to athletic excellence in swimming paid off with more gold medals than anyone has won in a single Olympics, and this has made him a millionaire several times over.

However, the price of such an accomplishment is that Michael Phelps is emotionally undeveloped. He's an adolescent boy who now wants to act like an adolescent boy. Unfortunately for him, he is finding out that he doesn't get to go back and do all the adolescent boy things now. One of the prices of taking millions of dollars to endorse products is the loss of a private life. Michael Phelps wants consumers to care about (and buy) the products he endorses; consumers have an interest, then, in knowing who Michael Phelps is, and why they should believe what he says about the products he wants us to buy.

What I do not understand is why Michael Phelps, or any athlete, is supposed to be a role model. A role model of what? Yes, the very best athletes are incredibly disciplined and committed, but they are also young. In the United States we glorify youth without recognizing that the majority of our lives are spent not being young. It is the rare athlete who can be a role model for anything except being young, physically gifted, and disciplined.

When I was young I didn't have role models. I had heroes. I was very involved with classical music, played piano, and kept a bust of Beethoven on the top of the piano. My middle initial is "B", and. some time ago, I came across a book from my childhood, and inside I'd written "Property of Julius 'Beethoven' Lester". I had many heroes -- the English poet, Shelly, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus. These were people whose lives awoke my spirit, made me want to strap on wings and soar toward the sun. Heroes stir in us the desire to touch and be touched by the divine. Heroes make us want to be better than we are, to live lives bigger than we could have imagined.

In the United States today, however, "Heroes" is a television show, and we have "role models." I thought a "role" was something someone pretended to be. But a hero does not pretend. A hero makes us ask, what are the values by which you live your life? When I was in college, I read the dialogue of Plato's that describes the death of Socrates, and I remember talking with others in the class and thinking a lot about would I die for something I believed in? In 1956 none of us knew that in a mere four years that question would be made real when the civil rights movement began, and thousands and thousands of blacks and whites would have to as that question - am I willing to risk my life, am I willing to die for the cause of racial equality?

As frightening as the question was (and is), those of us who had grown up with heroes found courage in their lives and works and answered, yes.

Michael Phelps has the potential to become a hero.

So do we all.

© 2009 by Julius Lester



I enjoyed reading your article on Michael Phelps.

My son received your name from his 3rd grade teacher in Charlotte,NC this past Friday. Each classmate has been given the name of a person to conduct research on and present back to the class what they have learned, in honor of black history month.

We look forward to doing this weekend assignment.


I enjoyed reading your blog.

My son was given your name on Friday by his 3rd grade teacher in Charlotte, NC to conduct a brief research project on. Classmates were given names of different people and will report to their classmates what they have learned.

We look forward to doing this weekend project.

Anonymous said...

This post sparked a thought that I often have about my students. Their parents have such great fears about them making mistakes. They do not see mistakes kids make as a learning experience, but as actions that should be punished. They stand behind their kids holding them up, rather than allowing them to fall and helping them to get back up. What I end up getting is 100's of students who are afraid to make mistakes, afraid to take risks, take chances, and only ever pick the option that they know they will be successful with. When they do make a mistake, they see it as a failure. They do not know how to pick themselves up and react.

Just like Phelps, I do fear what will happen when they leave their safe nest that their parents have created. While they are not devoted to a sport like Phelps, they have been committed to a certain lifestyle and loss of privacy. It seems as though many never get to operate and experience life out of the watchful eyes and directions of an adult.

Love the line "In the United States today, however, "Heroes" is a television show, and we have "role models."

Have enjoyed going back and reading your older posts.