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.
For our distant ancestors, athletic skill was much closer to political power. Small forager bands feared that the few most physically powerful members would attempt to dominate the band by force. Foragers had much less reason to fear domination by the few most musical folks in the band. So it made sense for foragers to hold athletes to higher moral standards than musicians.
So I suspect our tendency to hold athletes to higher standards than musicians is a holdover from our forager days; I’d explain similarly the fact that it is easier for an athlete than a musician to covert into a politician.
We can understand why we treat different kinds of celebrities differently today in terms of reasons our distant forager ancestors had to treat them differently. Can this approach help us understand our differing treatments of other kinds of celebrities?
Added 7p: The fact that athletes are held up as role models seems less an explanation for them being held to higher standards, and more as a restatement of the question. I’m not saying athletes are actually more moral, just that they are punished more severely when caught. I think the fact that we tolerate far more subjectivity in judging musicians than athletes is also related, but I’m not sure how.