Woods' Unique Role Makes Failings Painful

December 08, 2009|By Thomas F Schaller

I was saddened to hear about Tiger Woods and his admitted "transgressions." I like golf, and whether you're rooting for him or against him there's nothing like a Sunday afternoon final round with Mr. Woods atop or near the top of the leaderboard.

Upon hearing the news, my first reflex was that Tiger Woods owes nobody anything in the way of explanation or apology. He was never elected by anyone. He doesn't run a government agency that keeps our food or bridges or military bases safe. It's hard to make the case that he has obligations to the public beyond paying his taxes and obeying the laws like the rest of us.

Also in Mr. Wood's defense is the fact that throughout his career, he steadfastly insisted upon keeping his private life private. He is not showy, nor does he talk about his wife and kids. Tabloid favorites like David Beckham or Alex Rodriguez live ostentatious and public lives, but once he signs his final score card Mr. Woods tends to disappear from view.

There are historical analogues here. As sportswriter Michael Wilbon noted last week, the list of top athletes in their respective sports who either were unfaithful to their wives or were notorious women-chasers ranges from baseball's Babe Ruth to boxing's Muhammad Ali to basketball's Michael Jordan. Like these great athletes before him, Mr. Woods will expect to be judged by how he meets tests on the links, not on texts he sends to women with whom he's been linked.

All told, these are among the many reasons for the media and the public to back off and let Mr. Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, sort out their feelings and decide whether they are going to make a go of their marriage or separate.

Of course, members of a disapproving public can express their displeasure by refusing to buy Nike sporting goods, Tag Heuer watches or any of the other products Mr. Woods endorses. The companies that sponsor him can make their own decisions about whether he has tarnished the "Tiger brand."

And yet there is something inarguably different about Mr. Woods. Though he did not invite the attention that came with his pathbreaking career, the fact that no other nonwhite golfer has achieved what Mr. Woods has makes him a figure of social significance beyond his many trophies.

Any person who has dominated sports the way Mr. Woods has the past decade would have attracted attention. But because Mr. Woods is both an American and an African-American, he has become a national and international icon.

Although segregation has marred other American sports, golf is a unique case. Unlike sports played in arenas and public playgrounds, a lot of casual and even some competitive golf still takes place within the confines of private clubs. Those clubs remain exclusive to those with the means to join, and until recently many continued to exclude even wealthy nonwhites.

Mr. Woods' excellence on the links thus shatters the very idea of racial difference, and the stale warrants for segregated facilities, in sport or elsewhere. Over the years, Mr. Woods made a point to recognize the history he was making as well as the history he was reversing.

Earlier this year I argued in this space that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's extramarital affair was insufficient reason to remove him from office - so long as the tryst never caused him to abandon his post. But even if I think he is entitled to his privacy, if the people of South Carolina disagree they have the right to impeach him.

What makes the Woods situation so tough is that there is no "office" from which Tiger Woods can resign or be impeached. He holds a position that few athletes - indeed, few public figures from any realm - ever know: pioneer, path-breaker and role model. He is much more than just a superb athlete. Governors come and go, but Mr. Woods and his legacy are not replicable.

I've seen Mr. Woods play in three U.S Opens and one Ryder Cup match. Fans besiege him, hoping to get a glimpse, a photo or an autograph. Amid all the pressure, he maintains his focus. Unfortunately, his professional concentration only makes his private lapses all the more lamentable.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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