“Transgressions” is a nebulous term. Yet transgressions are what Tiger Woods is asking his family and fans to forgive.
Since his car accident last week, Woods and his family have been dragged into an increasingly complicated and tabloid-friendly web of sex, lies and sports.
The public response to the incident seems to go in one of two directions. Some fans are supportive, claiming that Woods’ relationships with his family and admitted infidelity are none of our business, and that we should focus on what made him a public figure: his golf game. The media’s response is one of concern, with the possible loss of endorsements and the effect that Woods’ tarnished public image will have on golf and Woods himself, as a man.
But in this day and age — sad as it may be — it’s entirely possible that fans, far from being surprised, actually expect this kind of behavior from professional athletes. This is a country that no longer casts a sideways glance at Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who was accused of rape in the summer of 2003. Though the charges were eventually dropped and Bryant and his accuser settled out of court, Bryant’s image was tarnished only temporarily.
This is a country that accepts and celebrates Wilt Chamberlain‘s claim that he slept with 20,000 women.
This is a country that not only accepted the divorce of Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez but lapped up the coverage of the third baseman’s alleged dalliances with Madonna.
The list — and yes, there is a list — goes on and on.
This is not to say that professional athletes should be our culture’s role models and poster children for the sanctity of marriage. Despite being blessed with physical gifts far above and beyond those of the everyday person, they are, at heart, fallible human beings. Which is why no one is terribly surprised with the confessions resulting from Woods’ bizarre accident. Woods, in his public apology to his family and fans, struggles with the issues of privacy that come with being a public figure: “But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy.”
But is that true?
In a 1993 Nike commercial, NBA legend Charles Barkley famously claimed, “I am not a role model.” While the intended message was that parents, not professional athletes, should be role models for children, the reality is quite different.
In today’s culture of million-dollar endorsement deals, do athletes forfeit their right to privacy as soon as someone buys a ticket to a game to watch them play? When someone signs a $90 million endorsement deal — as LeBron James did with Nike before he’d even played a minute of professional basketball — are they signing away their right to a personal life?
Arguments could be made that athletes’ professional and personal lives are not the same thing and should be treated as different entities. Tiger Woods does not get paid millions of dollars to raise your children. But he does get paid millions of dollars to encourage your children to buy things (or for you to buy things for your children) in the hope that, perhaps, your children will turn out like Tiger Woods. It’s a difficult catch-22 for professional athletes, and it is one that everyone — save the tabloid media — struggles with on a regular basis.
It’s understandable that Woods — and athletes of his caliber who find themselves in similar situations — do not want to be judged publicly for their personal transgressions. None of us would like our personal mistakes to be splashed across the pages of the National Enquirer or US Weekly, either. But our lives are not the kind where our job performances are regularly dissected on SportsCenter, nor are we ranked every day based on our daily performance.
We, the fans, the normal people, pay money to watch these athletes perform feats that we cannot. We cheer or boo them depending on our affiliations, and we choose to spend a fair amount of our hard-earned income supporting them — either by purchasing tickets to games, buying extended television subscription packages or dropping upward of $100 on an athlete’s jersey. And we do all of this specifically because they are public figures.
As such, they have a responsibility to us. They have a responsibility to play or compete to the best of their abilities because we are paying to see it. When a professional athlete takes to the field, court, ice, track or greens, he ceases to be a private person. He becomes a very well-paid performer. And when he leaves the arena of competition for the day, many, including Woods, would argue that they cease being our property. Unfortunately for Woods, the line has never been that clear.
In situations like the current Woods scandal, the line only gets blurrier because of the somewhat outdated notion of golf as a gentleman’s game. Despite the success of John Daly — notorious for his alcoholism, several marriages, tantrums and gambling addiction — golf has, by and large, maintained its standing as a polite, bad boy-averse game.
Tiger Woods has always been viewed as golf’s golden boy and was especially integral in spreading the popularity of golf. He was the youngest person ever to win the Masters (in 1997 at the age of 21) and also was the first non-white person to do so. Woods is credited with spreading the popularity of golf to non-white demographics and ethnicities. His endorsement deals were similarly impressive, and in 2008, he was the world’s highest-earning athlete, taking in over $110 million from combined endorsements and winnings.
Tiger Woods long ago ceased being simply an athlete to people and has since become a brand. That crossover is where the line between a private and public person officially blurred.
This issue of private life versus public figure won’t go away with Tiger Woods. Rather, when someone who is arguably the most popular athlete in the world struggles with these things, the questions only get brought to the forefront.
Fans may forgive him, and Woods may not lose a single endorsement over this. But at the end of the day, he’s not going to be struggling with his short game or an unflattering ranking.
Ultimately, the world’s most famous athlete is facing a human struggle, proving that he is, in fact, fallible after all.