Tiger Woods Ethics, Part I: Betrayal’s Not for Heroes

I wasn’t planning on commenting on the Tiger Woods soap opera. Its ethical lessons seemed obvious, and merely xeroxed themes that I have, in the eyes of some, thumped to death. I do feel that the apparent glee with which some in the sports media have attacked Woods for revealing his true character is damning…of them. Golf’s Golden Child finally outed himself as a phony “good guy” and a classic case of the prodigy who won’t or can’t grow up, a man who has been carrying on multiple adulterous affairs while using his bottomless checkbook to cover his tracks. It seems that many reporters have long known that Tiger’s public image was a fraud, and  had chafed over the adulation heaped on him as they witnessed the golfer being mean, petty and boorish, often to them. Now these journalists feel it is “safe” to skewer Woods, and are doing so with gusto. Cowards. They were parties to a mass public deception, and their duty was to let us know Tiger was playing us for suckers when they knew it, not when his lies became National Enquirer headlines.

As for Tiger’s own conduct, however, I presumed most could see the ethics issues clearly. Then the apologists and rationalizers started writing their columns.

“Poor Tiger Woods!” laments the Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein. Quoting Woods’ public statement that “personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions,” Goldstein writes that Woods “couldn’t be more right. He’s not a public official nor a high-minded preacher or cable TV public scold. What he does with his private life should be his own (pardon the pun) affair. Sure, he has zillion-dollar endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, but he earned those deals because he’s the greatest golfer of his generation, not because he’s a paragon of personal virtue. But in today’s wildly intrusive media universe, being a winner isn’t enough to protect your privacy.”

Goldstein, apparently, understands nothing about the nature of sports, celebrity, endorsements, hero-worship, role models or the duties of public figures. Reading this nonsense, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks the Easter Bunny is real and the moon is made of cheese, although he has lots of company: there have dozens of columns like this over the last several days, with more undoubtedly on the way. Woods didn’t “earn” those endorsements just because of his golf scores, though they were an essential factor. He makes “zillions” because he’s a cool, good-looking young athlete of color playing a sport that has previously been dominated by doughy white guys wearing loud slacks. He get paid to pitch products that have nothing to do with golf because he’s a hero to millions of kids and their parents too, and is pointed to as an example of how they can succeed and be rich and famous if they find their talent and work at it. If Woods is going to accept money to represent a product, if he is going to be a role mode, if young men are going to have his posters on their wall and wear his shoes, then he can’t be a liar, he can’t be a racist, he can’t be sexist, he can’t be a homophobe, he can’t kick his dog, he can’t slap his child, he can’t drive drunk, he can’t use drugs and he can’t cheat on his wife—because he’s not just a great golfer.

He is a professional role model and hero, and heroes can’t be scoundrels, phonies and jerks, in public, or in private.

Columnists like Goldstein should be required to turn in a column each year consisting of that sentence repeated a hundred times, not that it would enlighten him any.  (I should also point out that when you are fleeing from your furious wife at 2:30 AM and crash your car because she is attacking it with a golf club, attracting the police and the neighbors to the ruckus, this is not a “private” incident, and when you are famous, people have a right to be curious about what the heck was happening.)

Goldstein concludes his column of ethical duncisms by getting affirmation of his misconceptions from a professional cynic, Allan Mayer, a “crisis management consultant” who is a master of celebrity spin, and probably is hoping to nab Tiger as a client.

“For a movie star to be successful, the public has to love you,” Mayer told Goldstein, erroneously. “But for an athlete to be successful, they simply have to win. All Tiger has to do is win a few big golf tournaments… if he starts winning, he’ll be fine.”

What a fatuous, erroneous and dishonest statement! The movie stars and other artists who continued to be “successful” after they proved themselves unlovable are too many to count: the despicable and brilliant Frank Sinatra; the arrogant and talented Russell Crowe; the screwy and charismatic Tom Cruise; the incestuous and adventurous Woody Allen; and, of course, the child-raping auteur, now out on bail, Roman Polanski. Perceptions of character, if anything, are more important for star athletes than performers. Yes, there are “successful” NFL players with felony arrests, and “successful” NBA players defaulting on child-support for multiple illegitimate love-offspring, and “successful” baseball players who have cheated with steroids, but they are not the players with national endorsement contracts and national followings, because they are not qualified to be heroes.

I’ll gladly take Tiger Woods’ tips regarding what golf glove to use, because he’s the greatest golfer alive. If I am going to care what car he drives, however, or what watch he wears, I have to trust him, and like him enough to want to “be like Tiger” in ways that have nothing to do with my golf handicap.  I also have a right to know if I can trust him, and because he is representing himself as someone I should trust, he has no right to insist that private conduct proving he is not the person he pretends to be is off-limits to me. He made it relevant when he told the public, “Admire me. Trust me. Believe in me.”

“Poor Tiger?” Tiger’s not poor!  Tiger has enough money to divorce a string of wives, pay off a harem of mistresses, and still live like a rajah. The consequences to him of living a life of betrayal and deceit is minimal, but if his young fans decide that their hero’s disgarceful conduct means that breaking commitments and lying to one’s family is acceptable  as long as you can get away with it or afford for it, the consequences to them, their families and society will be disastrous.

No, not “poor Tiger.” Poor us, if the best heroes we can find are no better than Tiger Woods.

7 thoughts on “Tiger Woods Ethics, Part I: Betrayal’s Not for Heroes

  1. It’s a sad story, for all the reasons you state. Tiger Woods has wasted a very important thing — his right to affect children in a positive manner.

    I suppose, in the end, he could make the Charles Barkley argument, “I am not a role model.” My answer would be, “Okay, then don’t set yourself up as one.”

    As an avid golfer since my high school days, I am sorry to see this of Tiger. In an awkward way, it makes him more real to me — more human. God knows that we are all guilty of ethical failures, even some as egregious as Tiger’s.

    But there is no “poor Tiger” here. Not monetarily, and not ethically. He did his family a great wrong, a wrong from which he can never completely recover, no matter what he does.

    Life is painful when we behave badly. Particularly when we set ourselves up, intentionally or not, as paragons of virtue. And Tiger certainly knew what pedestal he was on.

  2. Does anyone know if the car that was beat up was a Buick?

    If I was Buick, that’s the first question I would ask when I heard about the incident. “Was he driving a Buick?” I think for all the endorsement money Buick pays him, the least he could do is try to escape from his wife by driving a Buick.

    I’m just sayin’….

  3. Your sentence that you would like Goldstein to write 100 times rubs me the wrong way.

    “He is a professional role model and hero, and heroes can’t be scoundrels, phonies and jerks, in public, or in private.”

    What does he do that makes him a hero? How does someone become a hero by playing good golf? I’m tired of professional athletes being claimed “heroes”. It really shows what a pathetic, celebrity-worshiping society that America has degraded to.

    • He’s a hero because he is packaged, worshipped, followed and admired like a hero. A hero who has no followers or admirers isn’t a hero in the public and cultural sense no matter what he has done. A person whom the culture treats as a a hero is one, until the culture changes its values.

      Yes—playing great golf makes you a hero to a lot of people, whether we like it or not. And heroes become role models.

  4. Pingback: Bret Favre, Meet Derek, LeBron, and Tiger | Ethics Alarms

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