Tiger Woods welcome to the world of mortals. Welcome to the world of Alex Rodriquez and Rodger Clemens and Rick Pitino and, yeah, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King. Men who squandered professional accomplishment and reputation for sexual peccadillos.
Americans create heroes of their athletes for well over a century. We see the teams as aspects of identity and memory but also as ways to identify with excellence and achievement. We point our children towards athletes as models of character and achievement. More cynical minded critics of sports would argue that we only do this to augment our egos and only identity with winners to augment our own lives of quiet meaninglessness. We make them heroes, we make them idols.
Athletes inherit obligations whether they want them or not. First, children and especially adolescents, inspired by media exposure and fathers identify with athletes and see them as possibilities and people to emulate. Kids walk, talk, dress, swing, shoot and use the same steroids the athletes use. Second, the athletes sign contracts and become celebrities supported by media companies to sell products. They even create their own lines of clothes, like Tiger, or accessories so that hero worshipping fans can not only buy their numbered jerseys but their shirts, shoes or colognes. Children, corporations, merchandising promote athletes to cultural icons and avatars of consumption.
This exposure drives narratives. Sometimes being a bad boy heightens the marketability so being a negative role model sells hoodies and shoes to rebels or wannabe "homies." Tiger took a different rode. He spoke at Obama's innaugration; he embraced a role as a bridge across races; he embodied a fierce work ethic and excellence; he overcame physical adversity; he had a story book marriage; he served as the face of everything from his clothes to international consultancies like Accenture. This narrative paints a seamless and heroic picture of Tiger as a paragon. He shouldered it well if uncomfortably.
I believe private lives should remain private and that we are not responsible to the public for them, unless we make our private life an aspect of our public celebrity or persona. Or unless we use private world to shield illegal or abuse behavior. Politicians who run on their family probity or business leaders who demand domesticity from their employees make their private lives legitimate points of inquiry.
Tiger never sold or lead with his private life. He always lead with his professional athletic excellence. The media narratives were fascinated by his life and celebrated it, but he sought to shield his life as much as he could. Still he can't escape the question of whether you want to wear the cool clothes of the best golf player of all time or an accused compulsive philanderer?
The media will hound and berate and exploit this for weeks. A media frenzy bringing down a hero is ugly to behold. It will waste hundreds of precious hours of TV coverage while the battles over Afghanistan and Health Care languish on page 2. We as viewers and makers of heroes collaborate in this distortion. The scandal sells, always has and will. Tiger Wood's own anguished but deliberate comment
"Personal sins should no require press releases and problems with a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions," is correct but won't stop the media ghouls or the voyeurs from exploiting his pain and humiliation.
This is a lesson we never seem to learn. The Greeks knew better. All their heroes had tragic flaws. The ability to overcome the flaws and still excel was an essential aspect of their heroism. We expect too much of heroes. All I ask is that they be human and we enjoy the gift of excellence they bequeath us.
(Photos courtesy of: uptownlife.net; rhasodyinbooks.wordpress.com; lamesport.net)