The Bottom Line: The Apples And Oranges of Tiger Woods

“…Lord I’ve really been real stressed
Down and out, losin ground
Although I am black and proud
Problems got me pessimistic…”

lyrics, “Tennessee”,  Arrested Development

Tennessee. Tennessee. That’s the state where a suggestive campaign ad associating senate candidate Harold Ford with a blonde Playboy bunny helped sink his 2008 campaign, and a disgruntled mistress murdered married former NFL quarterback and Nashville community favorite Steve McNair. Tiger Woods’ move from the PGA to TMZ and TMI, brings sex and race into the equation of his future in ways no one could have imagined even a week ago. His long fall is not from grace, but from teflon. If one guesstimates at least 95% of paying PGA Tour event attendees aren’t Black, what is the long term prognosis for an icon embroiled in a real life scenario rife with innuendo that dwarfs the ugliness of the Tennessee RNC’s “…Harold, call me…” effort? While sportswriters, high powered spin doctors, and advertising gurus all over the mainstream media predicting a gradual public acceptance and forgiveness of  a tourney winning Woods, based on the recoveries of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Vick, thousands of those now rocking Kobe jerseys, or cheering Vick’s recent return against his former Atlanta Falcons, are Black. Woods is of course the only Black athlete in his game. Those who huddle in PGA sponsors’ booths are lily white. As for MJ, he disappeared into minor league baseball for two and a half years until the heat subsided concerning his Big Willie, cigar tapping gambling woes. Others point to President Clinton. This situation is so different than any of those, or the tired examples of Alex Rodriguez that is also trotted out as precedent. Tiger was loved by millions, and vital to sponsors and tour hosts. Demographically, his galleries more reflect the America embraced by Rush Limbaugh than that of Steve Harvey. The elements of his downturn are more complex. President Clinton was a leader given the public trust, and one with a reputation for extramarital affairs, and a couple accusations of sexual harassment. Tiger Woods is a brand. Connections to porn stars, vulnerable pleas to erase cell phone information, runaway speculation regarding facial wounds, canceled police interviews, suspicious explanations of his accident, and a golf club-brandishing wife, have prompted meetings in major corporate front offices about their own relationships with The Golden Child. Accenture has already dropped him- no more huge ads in America’s major airports encouraging us to “Go on, be a Tiger”. Even as I write this, I can appreciate the inappropriate message that slogan would now send. Sex sank Harold Ford and John Edwards, it can at least bring Woods down a notch.

For the most part, in the years since Fuzzy Zoeller cracked that The Masters Tournament would be serving fried chicken and collard greens now that a Black player was wearing the coveted green jacket (ask him if the golf industry ever accepted him back), Tiger has resided as much above the racial fray as one can in an atmosphere where American history provides the backdrop. Despite his own early statements that he couldn’t join some of the “restricted” private country clubs on the pro circuit, his famous ethnic self-clarification for “Oprah” viewers, and the resulting controversy, Americans have taken his prominence for granted for a dozen years. The hate mail and threats he received were to be expected, given the number, and philosophical range of folk in the U.S. He did nothing to provoke them, beyond looking what then-presidential candidate Obama self-proclaimed “…different…” We have come a long way from the vitriol and theatre pickets that often greeted superstar Sammy Davis, Jr. and his Swedish wife May Britt. The fact Tiger was a billion dollar entity unto himself before Thanksgiving, and his wife’s origin a non-issue, speaks volumes. That was then.

Tiger’s worldwide popularity, and the symbol he (like Obama) represents for millions of youth, separate him from the A-Rod’s and Kobe’s on so many levels. Again, the world that will determine whether Tiger is welcomed back, is one that encompasses some of the most judgemental critics of tennis’ Williams sisters. How many Americans who don’t follow pro football, had even heard of Michael Vick before the dogfighting headlines? How many of Vick’s most harsh challengers would have felt as incensed had Bret Favre been exposed as a dog killer? As much as weighs in Tiger’s favor regarding potential redemption (in the sporting community, the moral compass centers somewhere between Charles Barkley accidentally spitting on a little girl, and Dennis Rodman purposely kicking a defenseless photographer on the floor), the beginning of the storm isn’t over. No one can gaze into a crystal ball and tell when and what the public and the market place will do this spring and summer- we don’t know what final decisions his affiliated brands will make. No one, even Woods, knows when we’ll see his face or photo in public. No golf fan or sponsor knows what role physical aesthetics may play in determining his re-appearance. His eventual marital status, state of mind, and additional revelations by sexual partners are unknowns. What we do know, causes concern in some circles. When Woods was sidelined by a knee injury in 2008, golf’s t.v. ratings dropped by nearly 50%. Tiger set an ambitious career goal to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tour event victories- he’s won 14. The golf industry was already suffering from decisions companies have made to withdraw event sponsorships during the economic downturn. One need not be a comedy writer to know the world’s best golfer happens to have the type of nickname, be involved in the kind of scandal, and even plays a sport that all lend themselves to all manner of double entendre, sexual humor, and gallery catcalls. His prospects for a routine American second act are tempered by our times. His every breath will now be even more closely monitored than before, this in a digital, cellular age. The PGA galleries of 2010 are a far, testosterone-laden cry from the staid politeness that accompanied the play of Nicklaus. Contemporary fans are given to declaring their look-where-I-am, privileged greenside presence with spirited outbursts of “You the man, Tiger!” when Woods tee shots soar toward the fairway, and “Get in the hole!’ annoyingly each time he putts. Sportswriters who opine that “…he’s not a baseball or football player, golf fans aren’t going to yell (scandal-related) things at him when he comes back…”, may be a little optimistic. The ball can’t hear these vocal fans, but judging from Tiger’s angry reactions to unexpected camera flashes and distracting conversation, he can. Will he still be “…the man…”? Gotta be tough to identify with a Cablinasian billionaire who has reportedly sexed a number of attractive women that some men only fantasize about on websites and magazine covers. Approval ratings for President Obama aren’t what they were six months ago, and he’s not the object of a personal fiasco. Like Clinton, Obama is held to a higher accountability standard than a wealthy pro jock, but the point is that public opinion swings. See- “swing”, there’s another word no commentator or comic can ever utter about Tiger’s golf game again without underlying double meaning. 

Forget arguments about whether Tiger is human, fans with delusional moral expectations of celebrities, and “this too shall pass” nonchalance. The sex is nothing (and everything), not one PGA golfer or red-blooded American male can say he is shocked that a man with status, looks, and opportunity, sleeps around. The media tsunami is not a result of surprise, but of impact. Lesser stories involving blondes (Natalee Holloway, Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears’ abilities as a mother) have dominated news cycles. I’m neither naive or prudish about high profile athletes, but one cannot subtract the sex from the equation, as it got us here. Ours is a nation that swung right in two of the last three presidential elections, and endured the hateful chain e-mails and birth certificate scrutiny of the 2008 election cycle. There are those for whom Woods, Inc. has crossed a line more sensitive than the one Serena Williams faulted when she threatened to force feed a tennis ball to a line judge.

While athletic indiscretions are as old as competition itself, coverage of sports stars has changed since baseball writers rode the same trains as Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees. Tiger Woods is one of the most celebrated American athletes beyond the realm of sport in the last 50 years. His family matters aren’t any of our business, but the mysterious accident, denied police access to blood (alcohol) analysis, forthcoming women, and delayed public appearance are news. They would be covered if they were about any household name. Ask David Letterman. Moreover, what has become public in this case is your business if you sell sporting goods, work at a hotel or restaurant on the 2010 PGA circuit, or are a member of the financially strapped fourth estate.

Tiger Woods is largely responsible for the degree of international attention paid male professional golf. He is the reason the sport’s revenues have quadrupled since he went pro. His excellence and ethnicity brought new fans, created commercial and fashion opportunities, and shaped media interest. Those factors have people directly affected by his fortunes holding their collective breath. Our fascination with money, sex, and race predate whatever really happened the morning after Thanksgiving. Scandal = cause, outcome = effect. The Vick story, which also unfolded from denial, to admission, in a series of added details, revealed varying attitudes about domestic animals. Guess what American preoccupation Tiger’s troubles will Rorschach? Pit bulls are one thing- Accenture distanced itself from Tiger because of negative headlines about humans. MSNBC news aired an ad from the consulting company in which a smirkng Tiger looks on while a young girl wows him at the driving range. Three weeks ago, you could have not only watched that ad with a straight face, you would have found it endearing and clever. Now, few dads of teenage girls could view that spot without a visceral reaction to Tiger’s facial expression. Just goes to show the “it’ll blow over like Kobe’s troubles” naysayers how powerful image can be. The cat is indefinitely limited in what he can do, say, or plug (man- I can’t even write verbs like “plug” any more without second thoughts. What happens from here on in extends outside the Woods household, and in some directions, in the world he occupies independently from golf. 



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