Role Models Aren’t Perfect, Nor Should They Be


David Ramsey thinks that Michael Phelps not only betrayed himself, but he also apparently betrayed David Ramsey, as well as you, me, and everyone else who enjoyed watching Phelps swim in the Olympics last summer.

Give me a break.

We don’t know our sports heroes. We think we do. We kid ourselves. We watch them compete a few hours and believe we’ve formed a relationship.

We witness their outlandish physical gifts, and make illogical conclusions. After admiring physical triumph, we fill in the blanks about an athlete’s character.

Listen.  Phelps didn’t beat his girlfriend.  He didn’t knock out some guy at a bar who questioned the sexuality of his chosen profession of swimming.  He didn’t steal from the poor.  He didn’t support dogfighting.

He took a hit off a bong.

The notion of a perfect role model is not only old-fashioned, it’s down right unhealthy.  Anyone who looks up to Michael Phelps and decides that, because of his incredible physical gifts, he is also an equally incredible and nearly perfect human being, is a fool.

David Ramsey says so himself: he filled in the blanks of Phelps’ character.  Ramsey doesn’t personally know Phelps.  He doesn’t call him a friend.  He’s not a family member.  To ascribe such lofty character traits to someone having only watched them via a television set swim in a pool several thousand miles away really only leaves you open for total disappointment.  Because no one is perfect.

Not even someone with a perfect 8-for-8 Gold medals.

And why should we expect him to be?  Perfection is unattainable.  It’s time that we stop placing athletic role models on some high moral pedestal and allow them to be human, to be imperfect, to make mistakes.  To do things that normal 23-year-olds do.

Because in the end, we all make mistakes.  Instead of focusing on the fact that Phelps did do something illegal, let’s watch and see how he handles it and learns from it.   He could’ve denied it and claimed ignorance.  But, he didn’t.  He admitted it and apologized immediately.  To me, that’s the kind of moral fortitude that is not only commendable, but the kind that we should all focus on attaining.  He took responsibility for his actions.

I don’t have children, but I hope that instead of wanting them to be perfect, I’ll encourage them to be responsible for themselves.  Even when they’ve made a mistake.  That’s the kind of lesson they should take from their role models.

If we require perfection of our role models, they’ll always end up being failures.



  1. personally, i like michael phelps even more now that i read that he took a hit off a bong.

  2. “took a hit off a bong” ? Are we assuming this was a one time hit? That picture seemed to indicate he knew what he was doing. Is it common to jump off the starting blocks of drug use into bong use?

  3. First, we have to agree that taking a hit off a bong is a form of imperfection. I don’t see any problem with an adult getting high. If it was an every day thing, or if he was abusing it in some other way, well, that could be a problem. But the puritanicalism of our society, combined with the hypocrisy that makes it all right to get drunk and not to get high, that makes it okay to smoke cigarettes but not weed, well, I don’t buy into it.

  4. @Syd –

    Good point. Seems like most people would start off with perhaps a bowl or a joint before upgrading to the bong level of marijuana smoking expertise. Odds are, this wasn’t his first time. And, unlike other prominent figures getting caught, he clearly inhaled.

    @Lorin –

    I think the issue you bring up is something that isn’t independent strictly to marijuana use, but any addiction to any substance. Phelps just was suspended three months for this incident. I don’t believe he was suspended when he received his DUI five years ago. Nor do I think he would’ve been as seriously reprimanded had he been involved in an alcohol-related incident this time, either. Again, the puritanical issue of our society shining through in its arbitrary damnation of one thing over another.

  5. I don’t recall the word “perfect” ever being mentioned in my column.

    Maybe I don’t recall the word “perfect” being used because it wasn’t used.

  6. I also don’t recall using the words “role model.”

    Oh, that’s right.

    I didn’t use the words “role model.”

  7. Oh, and one other thing. That sentence, the one that reads “No one is perfect.” That’s brilliant. And original. You are one deep thinking human being, my friend.

    Oh, and one more thing: In my column, I wrote that you could excuse yourself from the great “we” of the discussion. So if you were thrilled by Phelps choice, you obviously weren’t part of the “we” used in my column. I heard from dozens of people who seemed to believe everyone on earth was thrilled Phelps was photographed using a bong.

    I’m not dumb enough to think everyone agrees with me, but some of the people who disagreed with me were dumb enough to think everyone – except me – agreed with them.

    • Thanks, David Ramsey, for your thoughtful, insightful, and timely response to my blog. I recall using the words “perfect” and “role model” in my own blog, but thanks for pointing out that you didn’t use those exact words or phrases.

      While I may have not broken entirely new ground with my “no one is perfect” statement, I don’t see anything much new in disparaging a celebrity for a faux pas.

      No doubt you received dozens of responses to your article, but I was not one of those people, so please don’t lump me into that group. I also do not believe that everyone agrees with me; quite the contrary, actually.

      Thanks for writing in. It’s nice to have another follower, much like I’m sure you value your readers. I look forward to the next misstep by a famous athlete so as I can read your witty and profound comments.

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