Sunday, December 06, 2009


One of the benefits of being so busy the past 10 days (with Thanksgiving, and then my Association’s Annual Conference) is that I’ve had little time to think about the Tiger Woods saga, or even follow it that much. But now that Maureen Dowd has seen fit to comment, I see no choice but to add my two cents worth.

Before I do that, let me get my bias out of the way. Put simply, it enrages me that one of the major newspapers in the history of this country has seen fit to hire Maureen Dowd as a columnist. My disdain for her work is so strong that, even when I agree with the position she is arguing, I find myself embarrassed to be in agreement with her – her thinking is that vacuous and shallow. She’s too clever and cute by half, and what passes for wit in her work would have fit well into the gossip column that we used to concoct in my junior high school newspaper.

But comment on Tiger Woods she has, and with predictable results. Let’s start with this nugget:

After the baseball steroid scandal and the disappointing news that Tiger’s a cheetah, as the New York Post headline put it, it’s time to accept that athletes are not role models. They’re just models — for everything from sports drinks to running shoes to razor blades to credit cards to peanut butter to Buicks to Wheaties.

Wow…athletes are not role models? What a novel concept. What original thinking. But in the end, what arrogance. It’s painfully evident in this passage that Maureen Dowd really knows nothing about sports. Which, according to the rules of the day, is perfectly OK. Imagine if someone who knew nothing about international politics was to write columns about the war in Afghanistan. Or imagine if someone who knew nothing about domestic politics were to write columns about the performance of the President. That would be mocked; that would be derided. But when someone who knows nothing about sports presumes to write about the most prominent athlete of our time, well – that seems to be no problem.

Anyone who has been a serious student of sports (and yes, I modestly appoint myself to that status) has known for years, if not decades, that athletes are not role models – at least not in the parts of their lives that have nothing to do with their athletic accomplishments. That’s not to say that there haven’t been athletes who reach that status – of those playing right now, Drew Brees and Derek Jeter (among others) appear to lead lives that are admirable from all standpoints. Having said that, to this day, it amuses me that people are so offended when athletes fail to achieve the high standards that normal, regular people fail to reach on so many occasions.

But let’s talk about Tiger. Let’s stipulate that he’s been an idiot, that he’s been a jerk – just like so many men before him have been. To me, the story of his adultery and how it will impact his marriage isn’t really that interesting. Let’s be real – when Tiger met Elin, she was a model turned au pair for one of Tiger's fellow professional golfers. Call me insensitive and cynical, but there’s nothing in the mix of professional athlete and au pair that would lead me to believe that this would be one of the inspiring relationships of our time. Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t have been, and isn’t to excuse him of his “transgressions.”

As a fan of “the athletic drama of human competition,” as Jim McKay used to say, the more interesting question to me is how all of this is going to effect the trajectory of Tiger’s career, and his public image. Frankly, I doubt it will have much long-term effect on either, and in the unusual way that sports often work, could end up making him more popular.

I say that because, for all of his success, at the moment of his public disgrace Tiger was not a beloved figure in the sporting world. Yes, he was widely respected, if not held in awe – after all, he is the greatest golfer the world has ever seen, and being the best in the world at anything is worthy of respect. But as I’ve commented on a number of occasions (just link to the Tiger Woods posts on this here blog), Tiger has never been a “sportsman” in the Sports Illustrated sense of the word, despite the fact that SI has named him Sportsman of the Year twice –something that has never happened for any other athlete. But just like the rest of us, SI was blinded by Tiger’s magnificence on the course, and failed to consider much beyond that.

After the 2007 Masters, I wrote this:

“And one thing is for certain - Tiger's play was as joyless an exercise as I've ever seen, in any professional sport. Frankly, it was excruciating to watch - he was clearly pissed off nearly the entire time, and should probably give that some thought once he cools down a bit.”

And that, in a nutshell, is Tiger Woods. As previously noted, he is the greatest golfer of our time and one of the great athletes of our time – but that does not make him a perfect person. He has always approached golf and life as if it were a business; something to succeed at, something to strive for perfection at. Fans love him when he does well, because when that happens, there is nothing more stirring. What he’s never learned is how he should act when he fails – and to this point, when that happens he has generally acted like an asshole. And right now, when he is living through one of the epic public failures of our time, he’s struggling with how to turn that around. Right now, I’m not sure how it will turn out.

But if the subject is hand is how history will treat him, I’m not entirely sure all of this will matter. Because the public loves nothing more than a story of redemption, a story of a flawed man (or woman) who overcomes their shortcomings to achieve even greater heights. And that kind of story works especially well in the sporting world – just look at last week’s media coverage of LaGarrette Blount if you have any doubt about that.

So we shall see. The one thing I am certain of is that Tiger Woods will be remembered long after Maureen Dowd has been forgotten. And for me, that is how it should be.

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