Your Heroes Are Hurting You

By Jason Lim

Athletes are not overpaid – they are compensated according to their worth to society. Don’t get me wrong, an athlete’s value isn’t their physical competency. San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors didn’t pay Steph Curry $45.78M in 2021 for his ability to put balls through elevated hoops from long distances. Not directly at least.

World-class athletes are paid exorbitant amounts of money to play their sport because we, as consumers, direct enough attention to sports to make sports media a $1.8B industry in 2020. That price tag seems high, especially because anyone can watch someone else play a sport by heading out to the local park. Similarly, watching the minor leagues ostensibly provides the same sports-viewing experiences of team identity and the emotional rollercoaster of a close game. But we don’t watch just anyone play, we watch only athletes at the top of their game. We get something more from top athletes: the stories and values we project onto individuals. Top athletes encapsulate our society’s obsession with success and winning, as well as foundational beliefs in hard work and self-improvement. Because Steph Curry is so good at shooting basketballs, he is a hero in sports circles, and his success in basketball is a proxy success of the ideals assigned to him.

Beyond sports, we use heroes to embody abstract values and broader movements across history. Writer Thomas Carlyle pioneered the “great man theory” of history in 1840, suggesting that major historical events are driven by a few extraordinary individuals (leaders, thinkers, heroes) of the age. Rather than studying the economic and cultural forces that wore away the Roman empire, Carlyle might focus on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar to understand the period. This is an appealing view of history, reminiscent of our character-centric stories and literature. Princeton professor David A. Bell calls out Americans as particularly susceptible to the great man theory, citing our tendency to attribute the success of the American Revolution to George Washington or place responsibility for emancipation in the hands of Honest Abe. The great man theory indulges the human inclination to understand concepts in terms of people rather than abstract ideas. 

American culture is especially compatible with the creation and worship of heroes. Notions of self-improvement and individualism in pursuit of “The American Dream” lead to a culture obsessed with winners. Many Americans have an insatiable appetite for information about famous actors, artists, and athletes. Celebrity culture is the contemporary analog to the great man theory and similarly emphasizes individuals over ideas. There are negative repercussions of this thinking. Celebrity culture devalues the general population of people: the so-called “average folks” who truly constitute the nation. When everyone celebrated by mainstream media is a statistical outlier, negative self-image among the masses rises. Furthermore, hero worship belittles collective action by implying that significant change stems from great individuals rather than great collaboration. Lastly, our hero culture individualizes success, downplaying the responsibility of institutions. Heroes are responsible for their own success, and the credit belongs to their dedication to self-improvement, not their environment or support systems.  This motif in American culture supports self-sufficiency and delegitimizes community support. In Neoliberal thinking, this justifies disregard for social support programs and equality of opportunity.

Dismantling American hero culture starts with opposition to the great man theory. In a famous criticism of Carlyle, Herbert Spencer argues that leaders are products of their society and personal circles of support. Historian Howard Zinn disrupts the influence of the great man theory in explaining American history by focusing on populist and grassroots movements which shifted historical tides. In the current Advanced Placement curriculum, American History is taught with more emphasis on the lives of average Americans during a given period and less focus on presidents and generals. Media coverage of news should also shift away from hero-centric narratives. Covering viewpoints from a broad range of people embraces the experiences of the average and creates a comprehensive perspective. Offering coverage on mainstream channels to grassroots movements acknowledges the efficacy of collective action. Biographers and biopic filmmakers can tell the story of an individual’s life through a discussion of their environment, the institutions that influenced them, and the ideals they represented. Michael Lewis’s books, such as The Big Short and Moneyball, engage the reader with storytelling through individuals but avoids the tunnel vision that ignores the world surrounding the characters. 

Our human inclination is towards stories over statistics and people over ideas. This leaning has nurtured a powerful hero culture in America, devaluing community and collective action. Understanding how this culture affects us is the first step to a broader view of the world, and perhaps understanding the root of our astronomical athlete salaries.

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