Over the weekend, I wrote a column for The Daily Beast arguing that sports fans would be better off if we all ignored whatever happened in Tiger Woods’ driveway.
Every aficionado knows that sports are worth playing and watching as a simulacrum of life. Contriving various games with sets of rules, and leagues of competitors, we’re meant to enjoy the beauty of athletic prowess, to be awed by bodies that can do things ours can’t, to experience the suspense of live competition, the thrills of victory, and the lows of defeat—and to learn from the spectacle, all without the consequences of actual battle.
The effect is ruined when real life intrudes, even if only in the mind of the viewer, just as a movie is diminished when an actor’s real-life personality is as much a presence as the character he is playing, or a play suffers when a stagehand is heard sneezing behind the scenery during a climactic scene.
Basketball happens to be my favorite game. I’ve rooted for the Los Angeles Lakers ever since my father sat me beside him as an infant to cheer on Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. There are game-winning shots—Magic’s hook against the Celtics, Brian Shaw’s banked-in three-pointer against the TrailBlazers, Derek Fisher’s heave with less than a second on the clock to beat the Spurs—that caused me to involuntarily leap off the couch, shout aloud with joy, and crash back down, heart pumping, grin plastered upon my face. In exchange for these highs, I suffer the Lakers’ losses, but at worst I am slightly grumpy the evening after they are eliminated from the playoffs. Awaking the next day, it hardly matters to my life that another victory will have to await next season.
It is sometimes inevitable that real life intrudes on this bargain, as when Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, an event I hardly knew how to process as a 12-year-old kid who idolized him. Kobe Bryant’s rape trial is another event that a Lakers fan couldn’t help but have to know about. And could any of us enjoy his on-court performances quite as much during that fateful season?
In contrast, Tiger Woods isn’t retiring, or deathly ill, or accused of a serious crime that could cause him to miss a year of golf, or even send him to jail for life.
We can ignore this story. We should take advantage of that fact!
The piece is currently the most popular on that site — I’m not sure how they measure that exactly — and the comments section is, surprisingly, as heated as any I’ve seen there, despite the fact that I often write about America’s most polarizing political figures. As Freddie from The League of Ordinary Gentleman noted on Twitter, “People are awfully offended by the idea that they should mind their own business.”
Kashmir Hill says this about my argument:
But every aficionado* also knows that psychology is a huge part of sports. The success and failure of sports teams and athletes are determined not just by how well-trained their bodies are, but also by their mental focus. Next time Woods is on the green, you know this will be on his mind. Knowing this and judging whether it impairs his play or not is all part of the spectacle.
Actually, if I had to bet, I’d guess that Tiger Woods won’t be thinking about this incident the next time he is on the green — my guess is that Mr. Woods, like many exceptionally successful professional athletes, finds that being on the course is the most thorough escape he ever has from the concerns of real life. That’s what Kobe Bryant said during his rape trial, when he would fly back from Colorado court sessions to play in evening games. I don’t think he was lying, both due to his stats that season, and because even an amateur high school athlete like me escaped from the stresses of life on the tennis court, despite having nowhere near the focus or concentration of a superstar athlete.
It is also worth noting that by the standards that Kashmir suggests, we are entitled to know literally everything about professional athletes, since anything might affect their mental focus. As I wrote in my piece, “…goings on inside a gated community that involve the private life of an athlete and his wife? I no more want to know the details than I want to know how often Tiger masturbates, another bit of gossip that would do good traffic on the Internet.” I wasn’t merely being provocative with that line. I think it neatly demonstrates that there are some things we obviously haven’t any right to know about an athlete, even though it makes us curious, or lends insight into his mental state… or affects his abilities as an endorser of products.
That’s the other argument you see from folks who defend the media circus surrounding the Woods incident. Again, here is Kashmir:
Woods is very much a celebrity. He has graced the covers of many magazines and, more importantly, he has sold his brand to an assortment of advertisers: Woods has earned more than $100 million annually and, according to Forbes, more than $1 billion during his career thus far, thanks, in part, through endorsement deals with companies such as Nike, Gatorade, Electronic Arts, TAG Heuer and Gillette. – via “Tiger Woods’ Accident Shakes Advertisers” – ABC News.
Another company that has packaged and sold the Tiger Woods brand is the consulting company, Accenture. On its website, Accenture says: “As perhaps the world’s ultimate symbol of high performance, he serves as a metaphor for our commitment to helping companies become high-performance businesses.”
Woods has profited mightily from people’s fascination with him. Having accepted over a billion dollars for the marketing and selling of his personal brand, it’s hard for Woods to now make the argument that his brand is entitled to privacy, or for anyone to argue that he is not a public figure.
That Accenture tag-line is worth emphasizing. It calls Tiger Woods a “symbol of high performance,” not a symbol of personal rectitude, or marital excellence. If I am a manager who hires Accenture to help downsize my workforce, I am expecting consultants who perform capably under pressure, not Wharton grads who do community service on the weekends and bring their wife chocolate covered strawberries every Thursday evening.
It’s obviously true that Woods’ is considered a “safe” celebrity endorser among the companies who hire him, which increases his value as a spokesperson, but is anyone under the illusion that he was chosen by Nike or Cadillac due to his high morals? There are any number of upstanding citizens on the PGA Tour whose name no one knows, and who Nike won’t endorse even if they give a kidney to a dying Somali child in between tournaments. Woods’ brand is inseparable from his stature as the best golfer in the world, and ultimately separable from his personal life. (How many people didn’t even know until this weekend that he is married?).
The people arguing that by accepting endorsement deals, Tiger Woods cedes any right to be upset about violations of his privacy have chosen a particularly poor example for their argument, because Mr. Woods never had any choice about being a celebrity. The kid played golf since before he can even remember. As the first black man to make it to the top of a lily white sport, jumping from a stellar amateur career to early majors victories, he was always going to be a household name, even if he never signed a single endorsement deal. Put another way, so long as he wanted to play the sport that has defined his life since he was a toddler, he had to give up much of his privacy, and who among us, put in his position, wouldn’t accept millions of dollars of extra monetary compensation in exchange? Would we then be giving up whatever privacy we had left? Given how much Tiger Woods makes from golf alone, it is quite plausible to me that if he could, he’d trade all the endorsement checks for the ability to dine in a restaurant or take his kids to Disneyland without being mobbed.
As I said in my piece, “Except in the most extreme circumstances, athletes shouldn’t be treated as public figures when they are off the court, the field, or the course. It diminishes what they add to society, irrationally elevating their private lives in ways that do a disservice to them and to us.” I remain unconvinced by the counterarguments I’ve seen that say otherwise.