Athletes vs. Musicians

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.

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  • I wonder where actors fall on this scale. The Matthew Broderick scandal, just to name a recent example, shows that people do care, so I’m thinking actors probably fall between athletes and musicians.

    • – actors may rank above athletes: eg they have more success converting to politicians than athletes do.

      – musicians are expected to maintain an indifference to politics (outside of certain popular causes): look what hppened to the Dixie Chicks.

  • It seems to me that athletes, who are admired for their physical achievements and for achieving a level of perfection in the human body, upset us more when they succumb to taboos “of the flesh.” So sexual transgressions, drug use, violence, etc all undermine our perception of athletes as holding this stratified position of physical excellence. Teleologically, though, we expect less of musicians who are merely meant to stir our emotions, communicate with us spiritually, etc, and therefore physical transgressions are held against them less.

    Meanwhile, though, this might explain why political transgressions are less excusable in musicians than athletes. We expect our athletes to perform in places like Berlin in 1936 and Beijing in 2008 because what they do ‘transcends political concerns.’ But we censor our musicians for having the wrong spiritual/political positions (look at how the Dixie Chicks were censored on country radio stations for speaking against President Bush, or how artists in the 80s were expected to boycott Sun City). More recently, look at the NY Times piece on M.I.A. for a good example of holding artists accountable for their political beliefs in a way that never happens for politicians.

    I think this makes sense in a society where we would expect athletes to take care of their bodies to contribute to our group, but we don’t really care so much about what they think about important issues (look at how carefully we’ve elided comments from important athletes like Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordan who have said uncomfortable things). Musicians, though, who are responsible for things like coordinating and perpetuating social affects, political beliefs, stuff like that are held more accountable for what they say/feel and less for what they do.

    (I see this as a shaman/warrior dichotomy. Sometimes we expect our shamans from abusing their bodies for the sake of the tribe — heading into altered states through drug use, starvation, etc to bring back an appropriate vision.)

  • Vladimir M.

    This conclusion sounds vaguely plausible, but I’m suspicious of its factual basis. Namely:

    (1) Do these observations about different moral standards for athletes vs. musicians hold cross-culturally? The question is hard to answer, since few other recorded cultures have had anything similar to our notion of professional athletes.

    (2) Are these observations true for all, or even most sorts of athletes? It seems to me that the Tiger Woods case was peculiar because of the unusual social status assigned to his sport, and perhaps even because of his peculiar public persona.

    According to this sociologist who specializes in the study of sports marriages, there is lots of philandering by athletes going on that doesn’t attract much public attention:

    • I agree with Vladimir. Professional athletes engage in immoral behavior with a frequency that probably rivals that of musicians. It’s only when an athlete who has been especially held forth as a role model (e.g. Woods) violates societal norms that people get upset.

      If news came out that a married-with-kids musician with a clean image (like Bon Jovi, as Joe mentions below) was having a series of affairs, I think there’d be quite a lot of vilification of that behavior.

  • Joe Teicher

    I don’t really buy it I think its a safe bet that if it came out that Beyonce was banging a different dude every night on the road that would be big news, though it would be magnified by how unusual that is for a woman. I think that if came out that Bono or Bon Jovi had had 15 or 20 affairs that would be big news, though maybe not quite as big because they are just not quite as famous as Tiger Woods.

    • I’m not so sure about Bono. While Jon Bon Jovi has done a fair amount of charitable work, Bono is much more closely identified with humanitarian work. Also, Jon Bon Jovi looks more like an archetypal rock star than Bono does. This makes me think Bono fits more under the “idealised hero” banner, which is sensitive to personal indiscretions.

  • It would be hard for a single superior athlete to dominate an H-G band by force — they’d all sneak up on him in the middle of the night and kill him.

    It seems more to do with being the leader of a raiding or hunting party, hence the proximity to politicians. If you’re leading a raiding party, the other members are relying on you right now, and everyone back in the camp is relying on your success longer-term.

    If you’re leading a hunting party, ditto. Meat is shared pretty widely, and what if the most skilled hunter were without scruples? — he might try to hoard a decent amount before anyone else could put their hand out.

  • I’ve heard that Michael Jordan engaged in this sort of behavior and facilitated Tiger Woods in it, but was better at getting away with it.

    Contra Mordi, I’d say musicians (or perhaps the “creative class” more generally) are allowed a wider range of viewpoints than politicians. There are plenty of resolutions that rack up near unanimous support in Congress but probably wouldn’t elsewhere.

    Joe Teicher, there is also a double-standard for the two genders. So we would not consider that very ladylike behavior for Beyonce.

    I think more parents would like their kids to grow up to be pro-athletes rather than music stars. They might encourage their kids to play music at school, but school music isn’t the same as popular music.

    • Shelby

      I would have to say that the reason that parents would rather their children go into sports is because it is can be quantitatively described. If their numbers are high enough, they win,… with music… its all about subjection. That makes it harder for parents to see a childs future, which is why … children that are forced into music by parents always end up as social weirdos. I go to a university for music, i know how awkward they are.

  • Eric

    I think the difference stems from the fact that parents are more likely to endorse athletes as role models for their children. Many fathers are eager to take their 8-year-old kids to a baseball game. Very few are eager to take them to an R. Kelly concert. Because athletes have a more substantive “relationship” with children, we hold them to a higher moral standard.

    • Psychohistorian

      I think this is exactly what’s going on:

      “We want our athletes (and, to a degree our politicians) to be role models for our children. Most of our entertainers, not so much.”

      This is also backed up by the fact that certain entertainers – particularly those catering to children – are not given the same lax standards. People don’t much get upset by, say, Eminem’s life, because they’re *already* angered by his music. If someone more wholesome, like, Miley Cyrus – or the cast of Harry Potter or Twilight – started doing drugs and getting pregnant, it’d probably have severe career effects, because they’re approved as entertainment for kids.

      This theory seems to carve reality much closer to the joints than the one you put forth in this post.

      • Doug S.

        Miley Cyrus’s “nude” photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine caused a bit of a stir…

  • What about models vs. beauty pageant contestants? The criteria we reward them by are pretty similar, but not entirely.

    During the past two Miss USA pageants, many talking heads freaked out over the anti-PC answers that some of the hopefuls gave (e.g., against gay marriage).

    Would anyone have cared if Twiggy or Cindy Crawford had answered that they supported tougher immigration enforcement? Not that they would’ve been campaigning on behalf of this cause, but merely giving that answer when asked (as with Miss Oklahoma this year)? I doubt it.

    Models are only valued for being pretty and delighting us, somewhat like musicians. So they can act shocking and get a pass. But the beauty pageants are supposed to be the future trophy wives of the powerful, so we see them as potentially wielding much greater influence over us if they were crowned.

    Thus, even the slightest slip-up like being photographed on a stripping pole, drinking alcohol or snorting cocaine, or giving anti-PC views, is enough reason to denounce and humiliate them publicly.

  • dyuk

    chris brown
    or are we only talking about sex?

  • Comedians vs. celeb preachers like televangelists.

    They are remarkably similar — performing before an audience, whose feelings they try to coordinate, often toward some big message the performer wants to get out. These messages could even be the same, e.g. don’t trust politicians or feminists are ruining society.

    Comedians get cut a lot more slack for drug use, wild sex lives, and offering anti-PC views. If a televangelist is caught doing drugs or having an affair, he’s ruined. If he gives anti-PC views, he’s hounded by the PC crowd, who generally leave comedians alone in comparison.

    As before, the difference is due to whose job is to delight and entertain us vs. instruct and lead us. We know the comedian is always half-joking, exaggerating for comic effect, seeking the most laughter, etc., so we realize that people will take what he says with a large grain of salt and not let it affect their thoughts and behavior too much.

    But we believe that people will take what the earnest preacher says more seriously, so that he could more easily affect our thoughts and feelings. They could rally an army of believers more than a comedian could of his fans.

    • halli

      Well, except for Stephen Colbert. If there’s one thing he can do, is rally an army of believers to do things like save the US Speedskating team; I suspect veterans’ aid organizations have collected quite a bit based on his vocal and repeated support.

      There’s a reason that the most coveted spots for authors are interviews on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Apparently only Oprah rivals their ability to influence book-buying decisions.

      But considering the modeling behavior on the young, yeah. Nowhere near the impact.

      I also think the primary reason Tiger Woods’ behavior was such a scandal is that he was the African-American athlete who wasn’t: he wasn’t uneducated, he wasn’t a womanizer, he played the game of white power. When we found out he was just like all the other athletes, the differential of what we expected from his carefully crafted persona from what he actually did that was shocking.

  • agnostic, two great example comparisons (comedians v. preachers, models v. beauty queens)!

  • Mark Dionne

    Athletes play by a set of rules. Musicians and other entertainers do not. Perhaps we expect athletes to “play by the rules” outside the game?

  • Seconding what Eric said. I think a lot of people have the notion that athletes are role models. This was probably more true in the 50’s more than today–Chuck Klosterman has a great essay about the differences between how people thought about Joe DeMaggio vs. how people think about athletes today–but the attitude still lingers. In contrast, actors have long been stereotyped as amoral, and musicians have been seen as rebellious since at least the time of Elvis.

    I’d be careful assuming this has deeper roots, though it might. It seems fairly common for physical prowess to be regarded as the primary sort of human excellence, more important than musical ability (important as that may be). Hercules is cooler than Homer, and the high school quarterback is cooler than the president of glee club. And it’s more important to have your primary examples of excellence be good role models than it is for that to be true of secondary examples of excellence.

  • AL

    Does society really hold athletes to a higher standard than musicians? I’d like to see some data on that, as without it, it seems like a just-so story out of evolutionary psychology.

    For sure, Tiger Woods got a lot more flack than some philandering music stars, but there might be a simpler explanation: it shocks us to hear of Tiger Woods cheating because he has sold himself on his “nice guy” image. If another athlete like Dennis Rodman got caught cheating, I doubt anyone would 1) be surprised, and 2) care a whole lot about it, because Rodman never pretended to be anything but naughty. This would then have less to do with the contrast between musicians and athletes, and more to do with just being shocked by something unexpected.

  • Sure seams like a stretch to say this is from our forager days. Why are Americans eating more than ever? Oh … well our ancient ancestors overate whenever they killed a large animal – this must be shaping our behavior today!

    I think it is because we trust politicians (spot on with the vulnerability), we look up to athletes (literally), and we see musicians as drugged out.

  • AndrewK

    Tiger Woods is a separate case because he built and profited off his image of being the model American family man. The contrast from that and the way he handled it was his real downfall. Particularly when so many people stood up for him and his right to privacy in the days after the SUV incident. It got to the point where it was “say it ain’t so Tiger, please say it ain’t so.”

    Overall I would take a different tact on this and say that Athletes tend to be representative of our schools, cities, towns, and countries. Basically, we view athletes as ambassadors and when they represent us we see ourselves as part of the team.

    On the other hand musicians, poets, and artists alike are expected to be outsiders and radicals. Their is to say and do things that polite society is not supposed to say and do, but would like to say and do. As Howard Zinn would say their job is transcend the debate and push society to new levels of understanding. Society only gets upset when they go too far, or when they are hypocritical.

  • salacious

    Couldn’t the factual premise here just be a historically contingent accident? If we dialed history back to the days of big band music, before rock and roll, kurt cobain, and the sex pistols, would the premise still hold?

  • michael vassar

    The premise sounds somewhat credible, but not very. I’m inspired to take it and run though. It seems to me that left-wing politicians are held to much higher ethical standards than right-wing ones. Could this be that left-wing politicians are holding themselves to be representatives of the official establishment and of impartial judgment and corruption in a judge/priest/chief is a big deal while right-wing politicians are more like cheerleaders for one’s tribe/team who everyone knows aren’t trying to be accurate or virtuous but only to inspire the troops to fight hard and loyally?

    • Doug S.

      For that matter, why are democratic governments held to higher standards than dictatorships?

      • Doug S.

        (Points of comparison: Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as compared to Saddam Hussein’s treatment of the Kurds, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as compared to the American invasion of Afghanistan.)

      • Anonymous

        Maybe because people believe democracies to be morally superior to dictatorships due to the relevant stereotypes?

  • KrisC

    I don’t think the case has been made that this behavior originates in band level societies. Has there been a continuous existence of the role of “athlete” to maintain a memetic stance? From a genetic standpoint, athletes merely exhibit traits for fitness; athleticisim is only a special case. Creativity, for musicians, ought to appeal to a predisposition for storytelling, language, and perhaps, as an extension, guile. Politicians, as embodying leadership traits, should appeal to a separate affinity.

    I also do not believe that publicly expressed outrage necessarily reflects personal opinions. While we may publicly express outrage, there are many who think that philanderers are simply making the best of their situation. I believe the term is “fitness.”

    I do suspect that the reason for the media signaling outrage at athletes lies in the pack mentality of sports fans. The same rationale would explain the standards applied to politicians. Both roles rely on adversarial relations and group appeal. An athlete without support is not a star. A politician without support is not a leader. Losing the support of one’s spouse serves as a clear indicator to the distant fans / voters.

    Musicians and artists do not rely as strongly on adversarial relationships. When they engage in partisan affairs, they open themselves to rejection from those who support them for the signals that support sends.

    Of course, the themes of the genre come into play. Hip-hop artists promote adversarial fans, but also support misogny.

    The art-lover or music-lover, as the terms are popularly understood, sends signals that they are members of an elite, civilized stratum. As such, downplaying the significance of the tawdry affairs of mere artists is a signal of status.

    • D Bachmann

      I find it doubtful to trace this immediately to evolutionary factors. I fully agree that “nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution”, but tracing each and every facet of society to our distant forager ancestors unthinkingly can become a reflex or “bias” just as naive as any other.

      To assume that “musicians” were less powerful in paleolithic society than “athletes” to my mind also reflects a very simplistic image of such a society. Indeed the development of music (and language) was what shifted us apart from the animal kingdom and gave us almost godlike powers compared to other primates.

      Have you checked whether the detected bias in judging athletes more strictly than musicians isn’t just a quirk of US society? Is there evidence for similar tendencies in other societies the world over or throughout history? My assumption is that this is just a reflection of the popular image of individual disciplines. Thus, a sex scandal involving Herbert von Karajan would be judged very differently than one involving Axl Rose, regardless of both being musicians. The same might be true of a scandal involving a tennis or golf player vs. one involving a snowboarder or a motorcycle racer.

  • Noumenon

    Your blog is fascinating, Robin. With only one blogger, few people could make me go around thinking about their new ideas for as long as you have been.

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  • josh

    Sports are right wing. Rock and Roll is left-wing. Different tribes, different standards of morality.

  • Indy

    Sports = Parent-Approved Role Models For Kids. Popular Musician = Teenager-Approved Role Model for Teenagers. Hence the moral standards.

    End of story.

  • Tracy W

    I’m skeptical about this theory as well. Along with my doubts about relating existing thinking back to hunter-forager days (haven’t we had several thousand years of evolution since then?), and that h-f could just kill someone overly physically powerful in their sleep, is sexual morality related to political oppression? If we think of those who have deliberately avoided taking steps that could have turned their countries into dictatorships – Julius Nyerere, George Washington, General Monck spring to mind – have they tended to display higher levels of sexual morality than those who have turned democracies into dictatorships? I’d guess there’s no relationship between the two.

  • Simetrical

    michael vassar, unless you have data to the contrary, I’d say left-wing politicians are held to higher standards by conservatives, and right-wing politicians are held to higher standards by liberals. In my experience, people gloss over their side’s flaws and harp on the other’s flaws.

    • michael vassar

      No data, but that doesn’t ring true to me. Right wing politicians seem mostly indifferent to their opponents flaws most of the time, preferring to make things up rather than to have employees do the research, while left wing politicians seem to stick to issues most of the time. A less sympathetic interpretation of the left wing pattern would be to say that they are cowards who fear aggressive confrontation, which also rings true, at least relative to right wing politicians. In any event, I can’t casually name many instances of right wing politicians being attacked by left wing politicians in recent years for their personal lives, which is very counter-intuitive. I certainly could simply not have the data. As noted, I don’t really buy this whole hypothesis, but it’s worthy of being tested IMHO of someone had a good experimental proposal (most things people test probably don’t rise to that bar).

      • Simetrical

        I’m extremely wary of relying on anecdote or subjective impressions when it comes to things like politics. Not only might you be subject to significant bias, but so is everyone else.

        When it comes to judging whether musicians or sports players are judged more harshly, we all probably have pretty similar biases. Maybe we’re wrong, but at least our premises are probably consistent. In politics, though, there are a lot of different biases, so your premises are going to be rapidly disputed unless you have data, or unless you constrain yourself to a forum where everyone agrees with your politics.

        Notice, empirically, that no one has so far disputed that musicians are held to lower standards than sports players. The very first comment on your post was to dispute your suggestion that left-wing politicians are held to higher standards than right-wing politicians. This tells you that the latter isn’t as good an example.

        I’ll expand what I said before: everyone will judge their own side more leniently and the other side more harshly, but they won’t perceive that. They will, however, perceive the other side’s bias clearly. Maybe I’m totally wrong, but I suspect you’re a liberal — or at least closer to liberal than conservative. You therefore notice when conservatives let other conservatives slide and attack liberals for the slightest slip, but don’t notice when liberals do the opposite. Thus you perceive a clear bias where none exists. If you asked a conservative, the result would most likely be opposite. The pattern would vanish upon systematic examination.

        (But I have no data either. Apologies if my speculation is wrong. I’m politically conservative, by the way.)

  • sam

    Do you return to our forager ancestors for evolutionary or cultural explanations? If cultural, why do you return to a distant past? It seems more persuasive to stick to relatively recent cultural developments. For the past 200 years we have demanded from our artists that they defy ordinary values. Its not that we don’t hold artists to ordinary moral standards, rather we hold them to these standards in order to watch them be broken. Charlie Parker and Lou Reed are great because of the the disrepect they showed their bodies and ordinary values. Athletes on the other hand are great because of their natural and superior health. We don’t want them on steroids because that removes the illusion of their innate superiority. Moral health is seen as a corellary to physical health.

  • Values like discipline, objectivity, and fairness are central to sports. Things like rebellion and depravity are associated with popular music. We’re okay with musicians lacking an objective standards of right and wrong (as long as our kids don’t imitate them) because it is consistent with their work. It is much harder to resolve athletes’ transgressions with their skills. I think this is also why we don’t seek out (and in some cases cover up) personal dirt on athletes the way we do musicians and actors. We would rather think of them only in uniform.

  • Ryan Vann

    I would dispute the premise altogether. Standards differ drastically from athlete to athlete and performer to performer; outrage generally comes about when the athlete or performer acts in a way contra to the persona they have created for themselves. Thus, a theoretical Tom Brady scandal resonates moreso than say a Tank Johnson scandal, and an Amy Winehouse is allowed leniency than a Jewel (or Shania Twain).

  • Bill

    I don’t see how or why the difference in how musicians’ and athletes’ personal lives are regarded can seriously be traced back to when humans were in “hunter/gatherer” groups.

    Musicians that sing about doing it with many different people can do it with many different people with impunity. Athletes that are married with children, play golf, and have cultivated an image as a family man, cannot. Single athletes, like Jeter, who have reputations for being a single ladies man, can be just that. Women celebrities, like women in general, are not supposed to be overly slutty, unless their image is being super sexual, in which case they are expected to be super sexual with male stud celebrities.

  • Jason Malloy

    Audience probably matters a lot for the pattern you are observing. Republicans skew towards sports, while Democrats skew towards entertainment.

    Golfers aren’t generally the muscular big-man types, but they have a largely Republican audience, so they are more heavily regulated by Republican sensibilities. On the other hand, professional wrestlers are deliberately big-man types, but can be as bad as they wanna be, because their heavily Democrat audience demand less.

    Actors transition into politics just as easily as athletes, but, again, as entertainers they are regulated by a more liberal audience.

  • Idlewild

    It’s pretty simple: Parents present politicians as role-models for kids, then athletes, and never musicians.

  • Bock

    This dichotomy may hold for the US but does it for the rest of the world? I think soccer players are usually given a pass for dissolute behavior.

  • Alan

    Interesting hypothesis, but not entirely convincing. We’re assuming that something akin to our notion of private life existing in hunter/gatherer societies, and I’m not sure that’s a warranted assumption. In a hunter/gatherer society, would one expect much division of labor? The discussion would make more sense after the advent of agricultural-basec communities. There are examples, more recent, in which athletes were literally politicians in a sort of proxy warfare. Consider generally the case of classical Mayan ball games, in which the captain of the losing team stood in risk of literally losing his head. On the other hand, the winner was accorded power. Apparently, there exist portrayals of musicians in the stone carvings depicting such games. Anyone putting their lives on the line playing games in such a public manner was almost certain to have been accorded more in-group respect than musicians in the stands. Whether this says anything about today’s media-saturated, post-Victorian era of public morality is another question.

  • Golf has higher standards of behavior than other big spectator sports. Most notably, golfers are expected to call penalties on themselves that nobody else even saw. I saw Arnold Palmer knock himself out of contention for the 1984 Senior US Open by announcing he had taken two strokes to sink a one inch putt, even though you couldn’t see it on the replay.

  • Popeye

    On the veldt men who could drive golf balls hundreds of yards were natural leaders, as were those who could putt with great accuracy.

  • Nathanael Snow

    What about relative time horizons?
    Athletes have relatively short time horizons. They will only be in the limelight for 10-20 years max. Then its retirement. Many are bankrupt within a decade.
    Politicians have mixed time horizons. They have the potential to stay in the business for a long time, if they play their cards right, moving up at each stage of the game. Even if they fail, they can go into a bureaucracy. Musicians collect royalties probably as long as they are in the public eye. Their time horizon may depend on the timelessness of their music and its relative popularity.
    Each demographic faces expectations and pressures related to their time horizon. Athletes may be held to a higher moral standard because, given their relatively short time horizon, they are more likely to act recklessly. Those who manage to gain the public’s respect through good behavior may have a future in politics or car dealerships. Those that blow it can’t even do deodorant commercials.
    Musicians will be around for a while, so it is difficult to sanction their behavior. The more faddish the music the higher the imposed standards.
    Politicians never die, or so it seems. The desire for re-election helps to discipline their behavior.

  • I just added to this post.

  • Popeye

    Basically Professor Hanson think that golfers are held to a higher moral standard than Mick Jagger because when people watched Jack Nicklaus they trembled with veldt-fear at the thought of his physical domination. I mean, if Nicklaus was not a moral person, he could have single-handedly killed most of us and enslaved the rest. I’m glad he is a moral person. Aren’t you?

    I would like to offer a competing explanation for the fact that we treat athletes and musicians differently. Athletes play sports, and to a large extent sports are about winning and losing — in other words, sports are largely (not entirely) about competitive success. People have a strong desire to believe that the world is just, and in a just world success is granted to those who deserve it. Thus through a mix of the just-world fallacy and the halo effect there will be a temptation to build up a mythology around successful athletes, to attribute their success not just to physical gifts but to moral character. Such mythologies are a double-edged sword, however, which is why people felt “betrayed” by Tiger Woods.

    This explanation is incomplete, but it is much more relevant than any explanation focusing on physical domination in our foraging days.

    I would also like to add that to the extent that some people become famous because they represent rebellion against moral authority, it is hardly surprising that they are held to a lower moral standard than those who become famous because they represent moral discipline. Also, there are bad-boy athletes and wholesome musicians.

  • Amy

    Someone may have mentioned this, but I think it depends packaging of the athlete or musician. Many athletes brand themselves as wholesome, so when evidence to the contrary emerges this is more shocking than when a musician who is branded as a rocker turns out to be living a “rock and roll lifestyle”. When the musician is like Miley Cyrus, who is branded as a sweet Disney darling, and we find out that they are not what they seemed then there is major scandal. By the same token, I don’t think anyone was shocked by much that Dennis Rodman did due to his bad boy image.

  • Steven Schreiber

    Are we sure about this?

    No one seems to much care when the athlete is a random football player. Tiger Woods was condemned largely for perceived hypocrisy: he had been branded as wholesome, family-oriented.

    In fact, I’d bet that every time you see a lot of media attention to an athlete’s moral failing there’s either perceived hypocrisy because of a mismatch between actions and branding or something whose news value stems largely from a combination celebrity and extremity.

  • Matt Flipago

    I think we don’t hold musicians to higher standard because they always developed in a culture full of drugs. Blues and jazz and rock and roll always had this as the music culture. Those who are the most outspoken for high moral standards of roll models are often the most socially conservative, who were not fond of blues, jazz or rock and roll when it started out. Since they were never fans, they exerted little influence.

  • Extinct Species

    It’s basically not true. There are tons of athletes that are not held to a high standard or much of any standard for their behavior. The NBA is loaded with them. Lots of guys doing a different girl from the NBA groupie pool regularly. Generally they aren’t selling themselves as anything else so as long as they avoid things like anal rape pretty much nobody cares. However, athletes are much more involved in endorsing products and if they violate the persona they have cultivated to help sell themselves then they are rightfully held to that standard. Even with golf, which cultivates a conservative image we have John Daly. Sure he took his hits for being a drunk but now he brags about it and nobody really cares. I can’t even think of counter examples in the music world. Musicians for the most part sell frivolous good times, hedonism and/or rebellion. Their set standard is so low it is almost impossible to violate.

    Similar with drugs. For athletes they are either bad for them physically, cheating or both. Using is a direct assault on the very basis of their success or a violation of fair play. For musicians they are tools of the trade. Many would argue that they aid creativity. There really is no sense of fair play in the music world. There was a time when musicians stealing someone else’s work would have probably resulted in a strong negative public reaction, but that’s not even true anymore, think sampling.

  • If you insist on thinking about forager, then you should think about shamans as well. They would be the “prototype” for today’s professional musician. The shaman was a specialist in going to the “dream world,” which he did, not for fun and games, but for the good of individuals in the group and for the group as a whole. At the same time, of course, his ability to negotiate the dangerous transit between this world and the dream world made him dangerous. Once we have societies sufficiently differentiated so as to have music-making as an occupational specialty you find that professional musicians have both a high status, and are much respect, and a low status, they’re regarded as somewhat flakey and disreputable. Basically, you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry a musician, but when she does get married, and you shell out 100 cattle and 250 grabbles of wheat for the wedding, you want the best muscian in the territory to perform and you’ll pay lots of 1000 cowrie shells to get him.

    By contrast, athletes are not expected to negotiate trips to the Other World. Yes, athletes do get in a “zone” when they’re hot, but that’s not quite like what shamans and musicians do. Discipline and control are what we value in athletes. The fact that, at its highest level, that discipline and control must give way to utter freakin’ abandon in order to achieve the best results, well, we just forget about that. It’s not part of the mythology.

  • Greg

    Social and political economic dynamics within hunter gatherer groups are such that physical force is not a viable strategy for becoming the Big Man or Woman within a group. If you threatened me to try to keep me in line, why would I stay? What would keep me from voting with my feet and joining another group? With no property other than what I can carry, no concerns over property rights, no need for the kinds of communal labor often needed to maintain farms (i.e., annual cleaning of irrigation canals), I would have no reason to put up with violence, real or threatened apart form a desire to stay with people I already know.

  • I would put forward a different explanation.

    A musician’s output is what it is; it doesn’t matter if Beethoven was a cheat (assuming he didn’t plagiarise) or a drugs smuggler.

    With an athlete, this doesn’t apply: we expect athletes to not cheat by taking drugs, to apply ‘fair play’ and be courteous to their opponents, etc. A good performance requires they adhere to all these rules (no-one would be impressed with Bolt’s athletic performance if he is found to have been using drugs)

    This is all the more important because whether an athlete refrains from taking drugs and using unfair tricks to earn an advantage over his opponents is often unobserved (as is the case with politicians btw). Because an athlete’s performance can be tarnished by unobserved cheating, as is the case for a politician, we care about their conduct as we view cheating in their personal life as a signal of potential cheating in their athletic endeavours.

    And here’s some further proof: think about our reactions to moral lapses by dancers – who have the athletic ability of, well, an athlete but are really producing art instead of competing directly as athletes. My guess is that low moral standards in this case would be perfectly OK, as WYSIWYG – there’s no chance a dancing performance can be tarnished because the dancer ‘cheated’.

  • Nathan

    Disagree. First, different sports are held to different standards regarding morality. Golf is a ‘pro-family’ game who’s stars are walking billboards for commercial products. Thus, Tiger Woods’ infidelities are a bigger deal than the average NFL or MLB player.
    Musicians behaving badly (and its charitable to call Britney Spears a musician) is often part of their market appeal and again, different standards are applied differently. If the Jonas Brothers go on a drinking, drugging, whoring rampage along the lines of an average gangster rapper night, that will hurt their careers where as its a plus for a punk band. Its all relative. Drawing analogies to ancient times much less primordial man is a stretch beyond.

  • Over on Facebook my eBuddy John Emerson notes: “Even when the rock stars were cutting their hair, soccer players always had extravagant hair. Except for the Bulgarian and Romanian teams one year, who had crew cuts.”

    So, are soccer stars in, say, Brazil held to the “moral” standards of athletes in the US? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a difference. Afterall USofAmerican values and norms are not universal, no matter how hard the amateur EPers claim they are.

  • The service athletes sell is team identification, and this service is marketed to adults just as much to teenagers. Your sports team represents your city.

    Musicians don’t sell team identification. If they sell identification with anything, it’s with ideals, or with some overall sense of rebelliousness. And people typically stop identifying much with musicians once they reach adulthood.

    • Popeye

      Tiger Woods — explicitly mentioned in the OP — does not play for any team. I mean, I don’t think the Ryder Cup drove moral outrage.

  • Athletes tend to have larger macrosocial fan coalitions than musicians.

    Religious conservatives and secular hedonists, young and old can be fans of an athlete in the public square (they can all still be private fans, which is probably more relevant for religious conservatives).

    A hedonistic rock star isn’t going to be in danger of losing a religious market. An athlete does face that danger.

    Certain pop stars can enjoy similar macrosocial success, but it seems to me to be a much harder authenticity walk for them. Whereas an athlete can usually counter “sell out” charges simply by (1) winning and (2) not getting caught doing anything repugnant to a large constituency.

  • Jeff

    Very compelling topic. My two cents:

    Athletes, especially in the U.S., seem to be important to and part of a more conservative strain of culture than musicians or actors are, especially popular musicians, which may explain why they tend to be more vilified when they take a perceived misstep.

    Perhaps musicians are indulged a bit more for being considered a suspect class of individuals to begin with? Actors may seem to get a pass, but I’ve heard quite a bit of condemnation of their behavior by people I know, and also from the TV tabloid shows that report their every move.

    But I agree it seems true that neither group gets more heat for their mistakes than athletes, and I think it’s due to that conservativism that runs through sports fandom and athletic culture in this country. Whether that harks back to our days as hunter-gatherer tribes is not something I’d care to hazard a guess at, but it doesn’t seem any less plausible an explanation as any other I could come up with! I suppose that athletes are seen as a “safe” choice for role models in the more conservative strains of American culture, even though I bet that’s debatable in some circles.

    As a classical musician myself who is a sports fan, this is certainly a topic I’ll be thinking about for a while.

  • Patrick (orthonormal)

    I suspect it’s a consequence of the contingent accident that sports fandom is more highly correlated with religiosity in the US than music fandom. I predict that athletes’ sex lives aren’t subject to the same condemnations in the UK or elsewhere. (Well, then again, neither are their politicians’ sex lives.)

  • JudasStaley


    Athletes are never really recognized or well respected when retired. Nobody really gives a shit about Babe Ruth no more than they do John Lennon.

  • The Legendary Logan SAMMY Morrison

    Gotta say, I know this post is two years old but I’m gonna attempt a new slant on this.

    Athletes aren’t given the commericial time that a musician/actor is given. They endorse things but over here in the UK they’re usually sports related things (or in a rare case things marketed for men). Their lives in the general media’s eyes for that matter or pretty boring and I dare say an athlete is more of a “normal” person than any of the other types listed. Athletes work hard and outside of soccer, I’d say pretty much every athlete could walk down a street and no-one would notice them.

    Musicians lives however are on par with actors. How many actors or musicians have you seen capable of walking down a street and not get noticed? This is of course even with the aid of say a disguise. There’s one rare case of a band over here called Snow Patrol who on many occasions have said they can walk around even their home town and no-one would know who they are and they’re a pretty big band here (and to what I know branched out into the US but to what success, I don’t know). Most bands don’t have this liberty and often have to hide themselves although many take a great pride in wallacing about without disguise to be seen.

    I think a musician doing something bad, isn’t simply cared for because they’re a celebrity and it’s seen as a way to sell themselves. I don’t think an athlete (again outside of soccer) is considered a celebrity over here and for that reason, despite their lives being regarded as dull in the media (in comparison to an actor or musician) to step out of line would give the media something to talk about. A good example is England rugby union player Mike Tindall. Until he got married to Zara Phillips, I don’t think anyone outside of rugby would have known who he was and probably wouldn’t have recognised him on the street but because of a situation on the World Cup tour, he became somewhat villified/a celeb.

    Go figure but that’s the UK point of view from my eyes.

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