Celebrities Behaving Badly

Try as we may to escape, there is no way to remain ignorant of the latest antics of those whom our culture anoints with popularity. Anna Nicole Smith's self-destructive behavior finally caught up with her last week and the news channels are obsessed. Meanwhile Lindsey Lohan is "happy" in rehab, her mother tells a breathless nation.

Exactly why did Ms. Lohan need to go to rehab in the first place? She's not even legal age yet but apparently spends half her time bar-hopping. Why do celebrities enjoy these hedonistic lives and get away with it?

An economist at Clemson University thinks he has the answer. His research suggest that the key factor is replaceability.

To establish which explanation of bad behavior works best, Kendall gathered data from the National Basketball Association. Players in that league have been notorious for their rude and at times even criminal behavior. Fights on the court, brutish fouls, and even rape have been in the news in recent years. Kendall set out to discover which players behave the worst.

The NBA is a fine place to test these competing theories. Its players are young, have high incomes and guaranteed contracts. There is also significant variation in ability. Some players, like Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, have such preternaturally special skills that they fundamentally change the competitive level of their team. Others play their positions adequately, yet could be easily replaced. Do the irreplaceable stars tend to misbehave more?

To find out, Kendall gathered data on unsportsmanlike ``technical'' fouls for many years. He then performed a statistical analysis to identify what set the bad boys apart. While Kendall analyzed behavior across the entire population, his list of the worst offenders is a Who's Who of sportsmanship's greatest embarrassments, including such players as Rodman, Charles Barkley and Rasheed Wallace.

The results were striking. Income matters, but substitutability appears to matter more. If you want to know who will be a bad actor, look to a player's salary rank on a team. The player with the highest salary will behave the worst.

If you have two identical players, one who makes $10 million and is the third-highest-paid player on a team, and another who makes $10 million and is the highest paid on his team, the latter will behave much worse. The fellow with the top salary believes he cannot be replaced and abandons self control. MORE

This makes sense even without the statistical evidence. I've seen it myself in the business world. A key person can have bad habits and aggravate co-workers, but if the boss has no better alternatives to get the work done he will usually put up with it.

At the cultural level, we need (or think we need) actors and athletes to save us from lives of boredom. So we excuse their boorish behavior and continue buying tickets and watching games. The pressure to make it to the top - or to stay there - then drives these celebrities to ever more outrageous acts.

The good news is that the Internet is giving all of us the power to create our own celebrities. We don't have to live with whoever the studios tell us are our heroes - just find your own stars on YouTube.

For actors, at least, there is also the threat of being replaced with digital creations. The technology to do so is advancing rapidly. In Lord of the Rings, for example, Gollum was a digital character, given life only behind the scenes by Andy Serkis. Did he not seem real to you? In a few years, I'll bet actors won't be necessary at all. At that point there will be a lot of unemployed stars. A computerized Tom Cruise works a lot cheaper than the real one.

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