I was in college when I first heard the allegation that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had committed adultery. I was devastated, having held King to be unblemished and even incorruptible. At first I could not reconcile this knowledge with my image of him. Coincidentally, I attended school with one of Ralph Abernathy’s sons. Abernathy, King’s best friend and chief lieutenant, had just published a memoir in which he references King’s infidelity.
We spoke, briefly, about the startling revelation.
This experience was a turning point for me. It accelerated my understanding of the blessings and burdens of leadership. Until that point, I had had very unrealistic expectations of the people to whom I looked up. Suddenly, I felt that I had had the experience that Apostle Paul did when “the scales fell from his eyes.” I am eternally grateful for having been disabused of such naiveté.
A few years later, in 1993, NBA superstar Charles Barkley shot a Nike commercial in which he declared: “I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. … Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” Of the myriad infamous statements for which Barkley is known, this one is still perhaps his most controversial.
Barkley, who still defends the commercial, is fully aware that young people look up to him. He wrote in his memoir, “… nobody in all this time has been able to convince me that it’s wrong to tell kids to listen to their parents and not a basketball player they’ve never met.” While I certainly don’t agree with everything that Barkley has done and said, he’s correct in this instance.
I explicitly do not mean to suggest that people who are in the public eye have no responsibility to act respectfully, especially given the ubiquity of social media. My point is that the adults to whom children are closest can, should and do nearly always have a greater impact on their lives than do famous (or infamous) people. Of course, this does not prevent professional athletes and coaches from having “bad behavior” penalties in their multimillion-dollar contracts, but that is much more about protecting companies’ “brand image” than it is about morality.
Clearly, people who are well known, whether locally or nationally, have a responsibility to set a certain standard of behavior. However, they also should not be overly penalized for being human. The only thing that Americans enjoy more than building up people is tearing them down — and then cheering them on during their “comeback.” We love “second chances,” but sometimes I think that we love ensuring that we force people into needing them.
Perhaps we as a society are moving past the notion that our leaders have to be damn near perfect. Consider, for example, the strong contrasts between the personal lives of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It is irrefutable that, if Obama had had Trump’s “backstory,” very few of us would even know his name.
And he certainly would never have been president. While there is a strong racial component at work in this instance, I believe that Trump — for better and for worse — has moved the goalposts for what is acceptable behavior among our politicians. We are far, far from the days in which Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign was nearly derailed due to his multiple personal failings.
As a Christian, I have striven to practice the tenets of my faith in my daily life. I have often failed. Sometimes miserably. Sometimes catastrophically. Then again, scholar and clergyman Michael Eric Dyson has opined: “Saints make poor role models.” In other words, it is folly to try to set (or to follow) an impossible standard.
Will Smith’s “slap heard around the world” was a seminal event in this regard. According to British media outlet The Telegraph, comedian Dave Chappelle publicly said that Smith “ripped his mask off and showed us he was as ugly as the rest of us.” Chappelle went on to say, “Whatever the consequences are … I hope he doesn’t put his mask back on again, and lets his real face breathe.”
Chappelle, who has been mired in controversy for the past few years, has a point. It is a remarkable feat for Smith to have never violated his squeaky-clean public persona for three decades. By letting his “real face breathe,” perhaps he will allow himself the luxury of being merely human. That is a lesson for all of us.
Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at email@example.com.