So, why was everyone so upset at Tiger Woods and LeBron James in their respective implosions over the past few years?
One part of the answer is because they were Tiger Woods and LeBron James — huge sports figures whose names mean something beyond even the branding they command.
The other part is that fickle area of sports that ties in with why Chicago Cubs fans are still in mourning, or why John Elway never has to buy a drink in Denver again. Woods and James meant far more to average fans than other players. There was an emotional connection, a certain investment of self. So, when they messed up — no more than most other players — the backlash was swift, the heartbreak huge, the forgiveness slow.
But while forgiveness was slow, it was not nonexistent. Within minutes of Woods' indiscretions becoming public, some fans were already murmuring that while they couldn't stand Tiger the man, they were still going to root for Tiger the golfer. No one had ever played like this guy, they said, and they wanted whatever it took to see more of that. The beauty of the game wouldn't be foiled by non-game decisions.
Forgiveness in sports is a fickle thing, but most often it's preceded by another tricky sports phenomenon: Redemption. If the athlete posts a performance that blows people away, the ugliness of however he "hurt" the fans will go away. Whether it be from one game to the next, or a career of waiting where someone finally comes through with a championship, redemption heals all. Fans will take the broken, the humbled, the tired and the done. They will not take the losers.
That's why Woods and James have a chance to regain their spots in the hearts of the fans sickened by them years ago. Countless pro athletes are remembered today not for their giant scandals or game-changing errors but rather for the scope of their careers. If players can come back and show again what made them so promising before, they can win a permanent spot in sports affection.
Woods and James — or shall we say, Tiger and LeBron, T-Dubs and Bron Bron — are making hard strides to that spot. This past week was an excellent example of how far they've come.
Many people swore off Woods and golf forever after his huge fall from grace, which was further hampered by injury. He was flogged throughout the next season, and even as he posted pitiful performances, fans wouldn't let him go. He deserved it. Served him right for being a jerk.
But after paying penance for a good while, Woods has shown moments of brilliance this year. He started by winning his first official PGA Tour tournament in eons. That had fans and analysts alike salivating, announcing that Woods had found his swing and discovered his game and would win the Masters and get the majors record — and then he fell again. But this time, it was just performance that was lacking. All anyone was talking about this time around was how he was playing, not the seismic event that had started the poor play in the first place.
With everyone's attention firmly on his game, Woods rose to the challenge at the Memorial and sank a shot that will go down as one of the defining moments of his career. Whether Woods is back at majors form — or even winning normal tournaments form — is very much up for dispute, but whether Woods is back to being a player worth watching on Sunday afternoons, who can impress even weathered fans, who will create memories that will be told to the next generation — that is not in question. Woods is back in the discussion, and his Tiger-like play got him there.
James is a different study, for he never reached the same pinnacle as Woods. While the backlash with Woods was mostly about how his vaunted public image did not match his real personality, James has disappointed people in a different way. He hasn't accomplished much then let people down — he has never accomplished much. He was anointed with Tiger-like accolades, and people penciled in the championships he needed to earn the praise. But he never followed through on his end of the bargain. Instead, he continued to take the trappings of NBA kinghood without ever winning the throne.
James' low point was, of course, The Decision. Since then he's gone through the collective emotions of failure and waiting, of trying to fulfill expectations and of just being himself. But, while fans are still not completely comfortable with James or what he represents, there has been a begrudging respect every time he knocks something off their list of complaints against him. He's now closing games. He's bringing superior performances against tough teams. He's being a leader. He's winning. He's not promoting himself. And he looks better equipped to win it all than ever before.
James will need the Big One if he wants real redemption, while Woods can probably just nail more awesome chip shots for a while. But both athletes are definitely moving upward on the road from public hate to respect.
Fans may not want to love them when they look all-too-human. That's not the Tiger Woods and LeBron James they loved in the first place. But when they start doing that again — that thing that shows they aren't really like everyone else, even if their off-time is — perception will change.
The path is winding, but what the two have definitely figured out is what they have to do to climb it.
Win. Impress. Succeed.