By Mark Heisler
Editor’s note: We’re pleased to welcome Mark Heisler, our favorite sports writer, to these pages. Here, he looks at the biggest story in sports and asks “why?”
I thought the Tiger Woods story was out of legs a week ago, even if he later figured out he shouldn’t have tried to get off with mere “transgressions” in his first apology instead of using the word infidelity, while devoting 75 percent of his statement to asserting his privacy and only 25 percent to actually apologizing.
By then, it was hard to conclude anything other than he’d been unfaithful and crashed his car after arguing with his wife.
That is, it was hard to conclude anything else if you had to conclude anything.
You could just have put this down as some shit, however entertaining in a voyeuristic way, that happened to someone else—and considered it something between Woods and his wife, regardless of how famous he is.
Instead, the world was living from development to development, suggesting something much more important was going on than any of the old standards being hauled out: the damage to Woods’ image, or his failure as a role model, or golf’s chances of survival without him.
Nor is the issue the deeper, moral question posed by The Nation magazine’s “Tiger Deserves Your Scrutiny” piece, in which the author disavows any interest in Woods’ personal life but, since he’s on the subject, uses the story as a starting point to suggest that Tiger’s problems are poetic justice because of his lack of social conscience.
Of course, when Woods merchandized himself as purer than pure, he gave up much of his quote, right of privacy, unquote—a quaint notion in any case, since it depends on the, quote, restraint, unquote, of the predators who have just shown how willing they are to invade it the moment it suits their purpose.
Of course, who ever understands the bargains they enter into, be they sexually adventurous 50-something presidents or 20-something golfers?
The real story isn’t about Woods, at all—it’s about us:
What will it take, exactly, before we—the great aggregate we—butt out?
The great aggregate we, the community created by the media and its vast audience, overlap ever more, mobilizing ever greater numbers of people as broadcasters, publishers, viewers, readers, bloggers and tweeters who report, consume and relay the news.
With the planet awash in electrons trailing in Woods’ wake, Yahoo’s chief executive, Carol Bartz, announced at an investment conference, apparently intending no irony: “God bless Tiger.”
Noting the “huge uplift” for Yahoo, Bartz went on to note it was “better than Michael Jackson dying,” because it was “kind of hard to put an ad next to a funeral.”
Of all the questions being posed about Woods, the only one left out is whether any of them are appropriate.
Of course, we may still get to it when we run out of everything else, and/or feel guilty.
God forbid Tiger actually does anything drastic. Then we would have a lifetime of listening to the mea culpas.
If there ever was a line between appropriate and not appropriate, it’s gone now. Given enough interest, the media have no problems coming up with reasons why any story is their business.
Life in the globalized village is a constant search for sensation, the mass-interest lifeblood that flows through all platforms and niches.
Things like hard news, or abstruse policy discussion—you know, real-life stuff—are consigned to niches where people on the right and left can get thorough reportage that fits their preconceptions, and is buttressed by well-thought-out-albeit-180-degree-different arguments from Rush or Glenn or Keith.
The fractured audience may as well live in parallel universes, rather than being citizens of the same country with the capacity to form a broad consensus on matters of national interest.
We just had a national “debate” on health care that, at the grass-roots level, focused on whether the principals were socialists, communists, Birchers or Nazis.
Back in the ’80s when he and I were sports writers at the Los Angeles Times, I told my friend, Mike Littwin, now a national columnist for The Denver Post, that sports and politics were the same. I couldn’t explain why then, but everything that has happened since has made it clear:
Politics, once about ideas, is now ever more about winning, as conservative Republicans bill themselves as “compassionate” or “populist,” and Democrats agree that the government has a role in “values” and find they can be both for capital punishment and against abortion, the so-called pro-death posture.
Winners are worshiped and losers scorned, so the Democrats can be thrown on the garbage heap of history in 2004 and be back in the White House by 2008.
Sports writing was always like this. Every team is a folk movement with fans and media outlets devoted entirely to it, making pretend war with each other, creating super-human champions to worship and villains to revile.
There’s nothing more thrilling than the ascent of icons ... except the fireballs when they fly, and/or we launch them, too close to the sun.
FDR, a paraplegic, may not have been electable today. Michael Jordan, who had a peccadillo or two revealed in the 1980s and ’90s, which was still an innocent time compared with today, may not have gotten out as unscathed as he did.
This is Woods’ time, for better and, as usual, for worse. Just as no sports figure ever rose as high as he did, none ever fell as far and as fast, after running into a tree in front of his house.
Tiger’s fall was as perfect as his rise: Gorgeous Model Wife of Exemplar Megastar Bashes His Car With His Golf Clubs, Causing Crash While Other Gorgeous Women—Nine at Last Count—Come Forward or Are Reported to Have Had Affairs With Him.
Putting the finishing touch on himself, Woods, who had been allowed to nurture the illusion he controlled his privacy, has holed up ever since, as if handing the press his driver, teeing himself up and asking to be whacked down a freeway.
Oh, and he’s partly African-American and his wife is a blonde from Sweden.
Almost three weeks after the Nov. 27 crash, TV crews still stake out Woods’ gated community. If you wonder how they wile away the days between 911 calls, picture the guys in “The Front Page,” with their fedoras pushed back, sitting around the pressroom, trying to top each other as they phone fanciful stories to their papers.
As willing as mainstream media are to dive in, they can’t compete with the tabloids that pay for information, say anything and drive the coverage.
When Orlando’s WFTV-TV reported, “Eyewitness News has learned that Tiger Woods’ wife, Elin Nordegren, may have moved out of the couple’s Isleworth [private community] home,” it actually learned that from the Web site Radaronline—which WFTV referenced in its story.
This near-scoop zipped up the food chain. ABC News, which would just as soon not cite Radaronline, gave WFTV credit in the third paragraph of a story on its site, titled “Why Would Elin Nordegren Stay With Tiger Woods After at Least 9 Purported Affairs?”
By now, Woods should be hoping for an ATF siege, which might finally turn the tide of public opinion.
In any case, whether or not you stay tuned for further developments, there will be some.
Mark Heisler writes about sports for the Los Angeles Times.
AP / Koji Sasahara