A Pound of Flesh


For the most part, I've been watching the unfolding drama surrounding Tiger Woods with a bit of detachment. I am, to be sure, exceedingly glad that I'm not his wife. But, still. A professional athlete being unfaithful to their spouse is not exactly new news, any more than a politician cheating on their spouse is.

But I'm perplexed and intrigued with a particular theme that's emerged out of the sports and publicity punditry over the past few days, which follows the lines of a "Sports of the Times" column by William Rhoden on Sunday. What Tiger needs to do to repair his reputation, the argument goes, is to make a public statement and apology. "We need to see Woods," Rhoden argues.

Woods has apologized publicly already, in print statements. But apparently that's not enough. No, to earn forgiveness, he apparently has to stand in front of lights and cameras, humble, shamed, and apologizing to...and that's where I get puzzled. To whom is this public apology supposed to be directed? And to what end?

sanford wiki.jpgOne could argue that an elected governor of South Carolina who disappears off the job to South America for five days--without telling anyone where he's going--in order to have a liaison with his mistress, owes the public that elected him and entrusted him with the responsible governance of their state a correspondingly public apology. Of course, one could also argue that the extremely public news conference that ensued gave us way more information than we really needed or wanted about the whole mess. It also, by the way, did very little to repair or burnish the governor's reputation.

But Tiger Woods wasn't elected to manage a constituency, enact responsible legislation, or rule over the public's lives. He plays golf. Exceedingly, phenomenally well, as it happens. Which is the primary reason so many people were attracted to any tournament in which he was playing. And because he plays so well, and because we tend to glorify sports champions, he was able to parlay that talent and success into $100 million a year in sponsorships and product endorsements.

Woods clearly owes an apology--and more--to his wife and family. And to the extent that those $100 million worth of product endorsement deals were dependent on his image as a trustworthy image of responsibility and purity, his marketability in that role will now diminish dramatically, along with his paychecks. If we feel there must be consequences for hisĀ  behavior, the market--and I'm sure his wife--are imposing them already. As far as I'm concerned, we're square.

But this idea that the public will somehow forgive him and he can mend his image if--and only if--he submits to the humiliation of a public apology in front of lights and cameras, intrigues me. That argument implies that there is an accepted ritual of forgiveness we require any public figure, regardless of why they're a public figure, to go through for absolution.

We need to know he's sorry, the argument goes. Well, he's already said he's sorry. And he's already reaping a wave of negative consequences for his actions. For his family, words are too easy, and meaningless unless he does the work to make sure he doesn't hurt them like that again. And that work, if he chooses to undertake it, requires very difficult and private effort and time, away from the cameras.

But for the rest of us, it's worth asking--first, why we feel entitled to a public apology, and second, what more, exactly, would standing in front of the cameras do?

In many ways, the demand for a public, in-front-of-the-cameras apology has the feel of a primitive ritual punishment for breaking a societal more. The modern-day equivalent of being put in stocks in the town square, scarlet letter "A" emblazoned on his chest. So perhaps, for all our modern views on love, sex and marriage, we're not all that modern, on the inside. Do we still believe that adulterers should pay a price of public humiliation? Or does that impulse stem instead from conflicted desires and emotions we have regarding celebrities?

Certainly, we seem to relish taking down celebrities as much as we relish creating them in the first place. We love to look up to people, and yet we also love to prove that they're really no better than we are. We also infuse celebrities with an awful lot of our own baggage, in terms of dreams and beliefs and desires. George Clooney is the perfect man we all want to believe is out there somewhere. Barack Obama is going to make everything all right. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl and we're on their side, it proves we're a little bigger, too.

We build celebrities--actors, politicians, sports figures alike--into our best fantasies of whatever it is we choose to see in them. We take the public pieces we see and fill in the blanks as we wish. But if that celebrity then bursts that bubble we put them in, by policy decision or action, we react with anger, even if they never said they were the figure we made them out to be. If they benefited in any way from the fantasy, all the worse. So perhaps at least a piece of the public indignation, and desire for public humiliation on Woods's part, comes out of our own embarrassment of feeling somehow duped. Even if we built the fantasy ourselves. But do celebrities really owe us an apology for not turning out to be what we imagined they were?

If anyone had a perfect man fantasy about Tiger Woods, that image is shattered forever, no matter what he does now. Whatever value he has going forward will probably be based on more realistic traits: his golf skills, which will undoubtedly remain prodigious, and a more tempered image of a flawed man going on with whatever wisdom, learning or lack thereof he acquires throughout this process. And that second part will take a while to evolve and emerge. What will repair Tiger Woods's image, to whatever balance point that emerges, is time. Time, and a lifetime of future actions against which to balance the past.

Perhaps, as Rhoden suggests, Woods's absence from the cameras is a misjudged strategy for image manipulation. But perhaps he and his handlers understand the need for time and growth, and how little, against that reality, a public appearance would really do. Or perhaps, in the end, Woods cares less about our desires, and even his potential public image, than he does about his and his family's desire for privacy right now. Hard to believe about a celebrity, I know, but it's possible.

Sure, the media wants to see a public apology. Perhaps the public does, too. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're entitled to it. Or that our motives don't bear a bit of scrutiny themselves. As David Brooks just wrote, "Each person is part angel, part devil. Life is a struggle to push back against the evils of the world without succumbing to the passions of the beast lurking inside." Which is to say, why we wish to see Woods publicly and visually humbled is at last as worthy a question as why a golf icon was so careless and thoughtless with his family and his image in the first place.

Photo Credit: keith allison/wikimedia commons; wikimedia commons