Consider three kinds of celebrities: politicians, athletes, and musicians. We clearly hold politicians to higher moral and social standards than we do musicians. This makes sense because we feel more vulnerable to bad behavior by politicians than by musicians. An out of control politician could kill us all, while an out of control musician would at worst just fail to make music we like.
What about athletes? While we may not hold athletes to the high of standards we hold politicians, we clearly hold them to higher standards than musicians. Tiger Woods was vilified for moral violations that wouldn’t be worth reporting about a musician. Yet the above explanation for politicians vs. musicians doesn’t work here. While we are no more vulnerable to athletes than to musicians, we still hold athletes to a higher standard.
That is Robin Hanson, one of my favorite bloggers, at Overcoming Bias. He believes that the reason for this is rooted in the importance of athletic skill to early human hunter/gatherer tribes. In early forms of human organization, athletic skill was a key to political power within the tribe. This can be extended far beyond early human development, of course; prior to the invention of firearms, athletic ability was linked to martial skill, and prowess in combat has a long history of being a source of political power.
Yet in the present, this makes less sense. Athletes are no more likely to achieve political success than movie stars or musicians like Sonny Bono. And no one enjoys Charlie Parker, John Lennon, or Kurt Cobain's music less because of their drug use. Robert Downey Jr. is revered by many as one of the best actors of his generation, despite having been repeatedly imprisoned. Charlie Sheen is the star of the most popular sitcom on television. Yet far more minor moral violations on the part of athletes like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens cause immense outrage and widespread condemnation, and at least in the case of Bonds, drove him out of the game.
So why do we care more about the moral failings of athletes, compared to other entertainers and celebrities? And should we hold other celebrities to the same standard as athletes, hold athletes to a lower standard than we do presently, or continue to have a double standard for different kinds of famous people?