Monday, February 7, 2011

Are football stars really heroes, or just famous?

On Sunday, millions of Americans will gather around their TVs to watch Super Bowl XLV. And a lot of those fans will be sporting jerseys of players they admire, the heroes of their teams.

But are the players on the field really heroes, or just celebrities?

Those who study heroism say there is a tendency to confuse it with fame or celebrity worship, which has sparked some researchers to take a closer look at just what makes a hero in the 21st century.

Social psychologist Scott Allison, a psychology professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, says many become famous today due to media exposure so that "someone may say Lady Gaga is a hero and someone else may disagree."

"What happens is someone becomes famous and we hope here's a hero. We don't realize fame doesn't mean they're a great person. Being famous does not mean they're a hero," says Allison, co-author of Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them, published in November.

Mimi Snyder, 51, a small business owner in Peculiar, Mo., agrees.

"Just because they're a celebrity doesn't make them a hero," she says. "I think people don't understand that."

Dennis Denenberg of Lancaster, Pa., a professor emeritus of education at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa., says celebrity worship is most pronounced in youth.

"All you have to do is randomly ask kids to name heroes and they're going to list sports figures and they're going to list pop culture icons. They're really immersed in it. That's who they talk about. That's who they see. That's who they want to emulate," says Denenberg, co-author of 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet!, published in 2001 and being updated for an e-book this spring.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, says he created the nonprofit Heroic Imagination Project last year to encourage youth to think more about real heroism and encourage heroic acts.

"Because we are such a celebrity-oriented society, for many young people, being a celebrity has been equated with being a hero," says Zimbardo, of San Francisco.

But not all heroes remain so.

Snyder says you can "make your favorite football player your hero and then you find out what a crummy person they are."

"Everybody is a hero for 15 minutes and then we find out they cheat on their wife or don't pay their babysitter or lied on their resume. That hero worship we're supposed to feel disappears in a move of cynicism," says.W.D. Wetherell, of Lyme, N.H., author of On Admiration: Heroes, Heroines, Role Models, and Mentors, out last fall.

Allison says Tiger Woods is an example of a fallen hero.

"Tiger Woods achieved amazing heroic status and they slip up and we just pounce on them," Allison says, referring to the sex scandal that ended his marriage and his endorsements.

Denenberg defines "hero" as "a person who makes a positive contribution in the world." He believes a celebrity can become a hero "by showing us they genuinely care about others."

So in his view, celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Michael J. Fox and George Clooney could well be heroes.

Each is known for good deeds as well as theatrical talent: Jolie works for the well-being of refugees as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, Fox created a foundation for Parkinson's research and Clooney speaks out on behalf of human rights in Darfur and southern Sudan.

He also cites actor Christopher Reeve, who Denenberg says "transformed himself from a celebrity who played Superman into a real hero" following an equestrian accident that left him a quadriplegic until his death in 2004.

Dana Klisanin, a research psychologist in New York City, suggests there's an emerging "cyberhero" who takes advantage of the Internet for digital altrusim. The study she presented to the American Psychological Association in 2009, was spurred by those who are proactive online to help others, she says.

"I started to ask 'Who are the people doing this? Where would they fall in our current framework of heroism?' We traditionally think of a hero out there risking their life for someone or doing something more traditionally thought to be heroic," she says. "That's when I started looking into the background of the hero and started to formulate the theory that perhaps living in the 21st century there's a new type of hero arising."

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

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