Success and Unethical Celebrities
“Good ethics is good business” is one of many trite mantras used in the ethics and compliance industry to persuade the typically miserable attendees of mandatory trainings that ethics really does have tangible benefits. But mantras are pretty flimsy when pitted against high profile real life lessons involving successful, powerful or wealthy celebrities who display contempt for ethical values at every stage of their careers, and flourish nonetheless.
There are two ways in which celebrities can help build an ethical culture. One way, the positive way, is for them to use their popularity to bring attention to ethical behavior, and serve as role models. The other way is for them to be seen as losing status and the benefits of fame when they openly do wrong. Far too often, exactly the opposite occurs as celebrities stand as living proof that bad ethics can pay off, or at least don’t slow you down very much.
Exhibit A is Marion Barry, a popular civil rights leader in the 1960s whose later service as mayor of Washington, D.C. was distinguished by shameless personal misbehavior cronyism, graft, corruption, under-the-table deals and willfully irresponsible fiscal management, bankrupting the city. Barry himself remained personally popular by maintaining a defiant public persona and crying racism whenever he found himself under scrutiny by the press. Had he not been apprehended smoking crack cocaine (shortly after passionately lecturing D.C. high school students about the evils of drug use) and sent to prison in 1991, he may well have never left office. Despite his humiliation, Barry remained and remains a heroic figure to much of D.C.’s inner city black population. He was elected a D.C. councilman in 1992, and then, incredibly, reclaimed the position of mayor for a fourth term after a campaign in which he invoked the magic words of “redemption” and proclaimed that he had conquered his demons. In 2004, he was elected Councilman of Washington’s Ward 8 in a landslide, despite a 2002 incident in which the D.C. Park police found drugs in his car. Typically and successfully, he claimed that police planted the stuff.
It is abundantly clear that Barry, ever the con expert, hasn’t changed one bit. Last year he pled guilty to five years of tax evasion, and now it has been confirmed by drug testing that he still uses cocaine. Because this violated the conditions of his lenient sentencing for the tax offense, Barry may yet find himself back in jail. But Barry is, by urban Washington standards, a success story. Rather than using his prominence to promote positive behavior among Washington’s disadvantaged youth, he instead has shown how the ways of the street hustler can be translated into fame, power and influence. “Good ethics is good business?” For Marion Barry, bad ethics have paved his way to success. The widely perceived lessons of his legal problems are 1) if you’re successful and black, the white establishment will conspire to get you and 2) don’t get caught using drugs.
Exhibit B is Virginia Tech’s football star Marcus Vick, who was finally thrown off the team for stomping on a prone opponent’s neck during the Gator Bowl on national television. “Finally,” because he had been in constant trouble throughout his career at the school with multiple driving infractions and two criminal charges, more than enough to get a less athletically gifted student bounced for good long ago. Vick was hardly contrite. After he was disciplined for his televised thuggery, he dropped out of school, saying, “It’s not a big deal. . . . I’ll just move to the next level, baby.” Now Vick is preparing to be wooed with millions of dollars from whichever NFL team drafts him in the hopes, not entirely unfounded, that he might be the equal of his brother Michael, a Pro-Bowl quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons. Vick’s anti-social tendencies and lack of scruples and discipline may yet bring him down, but in the meantime, he too has shown that repeated bad conduct need not stand in the way of success. There will be many kids proudly wearing Marcus Vick jerseys, just as there were many who idolized former NBA star Dennis Rodman, another unapologetic thug.
Allowing characters like Barry and Vick (and Barry Bonds, Tom DeLay, G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Jackson, Virginia Congressman John Moran, rapper Ludacris, political commentator Dick Morris and so many others, including, lest we forget, Senate veteran Ted Kennedy, who has never suffered at the polls for outrageous behavior that led to the drowning of a young woman) to continue as celebrities despite blatant misconduct contributes to a cultural environment that not only tolerates unethical conduct, but is often blind to it.
Individuals always should be able to earn forgiveness. But for “Good ethics is good business” to be more than a cynical cliché in America, we need to insist that the rich, famous, talented, beautiful and powerful suffer more than a little bad publicity and inconvenience when their ethics are terrible.