A regular reader, Peter Farmer, sent me an e-mail with what he said was a small criticism of my piece on Michael Phelps. His correction was right on the money. It actually was a major point. You see, I called Phelps a hero.
Farmer said, “As impressive as his achievements are, does not qualify [him] as hero. Soldiers, cops, firefighters, and the like can legitimately described as heroic, as can some doctors and nurses. “These people do difficult jobs with little recognition and often under incredibly trying conditions. I have worked in a big city medical center, and let me tell you that heroic, lifesaving efforts by doctors, nurses and other staff are an every day occurrence in these places. Similarly, I am still amazed that our municipalities can find police officers willing to do that dangerous and dirty job for as little money as they are paid, and the same holds true for firemen, soldiers and many others, whose accomplishments are overshadowed by mere sports figures.”
Farmer pointed to the prisoners of war and said he knows of no better example than these fine men who survived and triumphed under the most trying conditions possible as enemy POWs. “Alternatively, look at any of the heroes of the wars we are fighting, from Sgt. Ray Smith to Cpl. Pat Tillman. Tillman gave up a career as a ‘sports hero’ to become a real one.”
Farmer concluded by stating, “Please do not cheapen the meaning of heroism. Michael Phelps is an amazing athlete, and a worldwide celebrity, but he is no hero—and I am sure he would agree. Perhaps we can call him a ‘sports hero’ but even that terminology bothers me.”
I thank Farmer for pointing out my error. He is so right. The truth is I have said the same thing myself in other commentaries. We have cheapened what a real hero is. That term should be reserved for people who sacrifice their lives for the good of others. What I was thinking in calling Phelps a hero was really his patriotism and humility in the face of great accomplishment. I was perhaps overly impressed that he did not use his platform for any kind of message or protest and that he genuinely loved his country. But a hero that does not make him.
In fact, now would be a good time to begin to restore the term “hero” for those who genuinely deserve it. Every time we see the term misused we ought to call that to the writer’s attention. If each of us did that often enough it would begin to catch on. While we want good role models for our young people, and Phelps is that, we want these same young people to understand the nature of genuine heroic behavior. So thanks, Pete Farmer. You may have started something.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation