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

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Birthday, etc.

The Birthday

First, thank you to all those who sent birthday wishes, even from as far away as India.
I was deeply touched by your messages.

My birthdays are always quiet ones. My children called. My wife gave me three cashmere sweaters, and although I own too many sweaters, there's always room for ones made of cashmere. A close friend gave me a wonderful 1998 St. Emilion Grand Cru which I look forward to welcoming spring with. The rack of lamb from Dean & DeLucca was the mildest I've ever had. And the 1998 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape. Well, I do not have the words to describe the experience of drinking such a wine. So, my birthday was one of quiet sensual pleasures that made me smile outwardly and inwardly.

I usually don't feel anything about my birthdays, but there have been some exceptions. Twenty-five scared me. I'd lived a quarter-century and hadn't done anything. Forty was a happy one because I felt like I was, finally, an adult. Fifty was very depressing for reasons that depress me to talk about, so I won't. As I've thought about what it feels like to be 70, the word that keeps coming to mind is gravitas - Latin from gravis, "serious". Seventy is another country, and I am looking forward to exploring what it has to offer me.

A Little Blog Business

A blog reader, Lindsey Brown, e-mailed to ask if she could use in a class what I'd written about the inauguration. Even though it's probably too late, the answer is, yes. I was not able to respond to her directly because when someone sends a comment on a blog post, I am not given that person's e-mail address. So, to you Lindsey, as well as others, my lack of response to your comments and, sometimes, questions is not indifference on my part. This blog hosting site does not allow me to respond to you directly. If someone needs a direct response from me, do not send a comment to the blog but e-mail me


Today is Super Bowl Sunday. For serious football fans like me and my wife, it is a day of mixed feelings because it is the last serious football game until preseason games in August. As we all know, sports reflect societies, and in this country, at least, sports have also been agents of change.

One of those changes is seen in football. The home crowds at football games have become an important element in games. They are encouraged to make noise to make it difficult for the visiting team players to hear the signal calling. Sometimes, in crucial situations, a player will move before the ball is snapped and thus incur a penalty for his team. When this happens the crowd yells even louder on the next play.

And yet, not too many years ago, there was a rule that the home team could be penalized five yards if the noise of the crowd interfered with the ability of visiting team players to hear the quarterback's signals. I remember stadium announcers asking crowds to be quiet so the home team would not be penalized. I remember players and coaches of the home team gesturing the crowd for silence. I liked the element of fairness invoked by not allowing the noise of the home team crowd to influence the play of the visiting team.

But, at some point, the National Football League decided to allow crowd noise to become an integral factor in games. In so doing, they also contributed to the coarsening of public life. This coarsening not only has to do with encouraging crowds to be loud and boisterous. It also gives us permission to deaden our feelings towards others.

This creates a subtle but definite shift from values of fairness to others (the visiting team), to the value that says nothing is more important than my ego identity, (the home team), and anything I can do to feel good about myself (my team wins) is not only acceptable but commendable.

And thus we come to the Republicans in Congress who continue to root only for Republicans, who continue to act as if only they matter. President Obama is sincerely trying to change the tone of political discourse in the United States. Perhaps the place to start would be asking the National Football League to reinstate the rule that penalized the home team when the noise its crowd makes puts the visiting team at a disadvantage. Transforming the tone of public discourse might begin with changing the tone of football games.

© 2009 by Julius Lester