Recently, the Web site BloggingheadsTV asked me to come on and talk basketball. That's unusual because Bloggingheads usually focuses on politics, not sports. Then again, as managing editor Sang Ngo joked, the site did cover the Tiger Woods scandal.
This offhand joke raised a sort of philosophical question. Namely, is Tiger Woods a sports story? At first glance the question seems absurd, but it turns out to be a kind of Rorschach test, with your answer saying a lot about why you do, or don't, follow big-time American spectator sports.
Like any modern celebrity, professional athletes are paid to be in the public eye—to project an image, both on and off the field. Fans who love Tiger Woods and companies who pay him to endorse products aren't interested only in his golf game any more than people who care about Jennifer Aniston are only interested in her films.
For Woods, a non-white athlete dominating a historically segregated sport, the broader social implications of his career have always been immense. Woods's success, for instance, was unquestionably part of the process that helped Americans accept the idea of a non-white president. The revelations of infidelities, while certainly embarrassing and costly, only broadened his significance as a social figure. Woods has gone from symbol of athletic achievement and racial equality to a pretext for debate on virtually any topic at all.
You can see in Tiger's story whatever matters to you most. People interested in racial issues might notice that Tiger's sizeable sexual appetites don't seem big enough to include black women. Cheaters might realize their text messages don't magically disappear once they send them. Someone concerned about domestic violence might wonder why allegations that Elin Woods attacked her husband with a golf club (rumors Tiger angrily denies) became a source of so much sick humor. If a husband was suspected of beating his famous wife with a golf club, one wonders, would the jokes have seemed quite so funny?
Here, though, is where we find the Great Divide between sports fans and everyone else. Star athletes, like all celebrities, do serve a broader social function. For fans, though, the social implications of Woods or any other athlete are secondary at best. What matters to fans is what happens between the lines. Fans love sports for the spectacle, precision, and strategic thinking; for self-discipline, sacrifice, and grace under pressure. Fans, especially men, love sports for their celebration of raw, physical prowess—speed, strength, agility and endurance—the qualities of masculinity that an industrialized society no longer requires.
Whether Tiger's comeback is a sports story, then, really depends on who is doing the asking—or the watching. For the casual observer, Woods is interesting mostly for what he represents off the golf course. How he performs on it from this point forward, win or lose, can only be epilogue. For the fan, how he performs matters most, not because birdies bring redemption, but because the simple beauty of the game trumps all social discourse. The question, really, is whether you only care about Tiger Woods because he plays golf or you only care about golf because Tiger plays it.