Monday, November 30, 2009

On the New Tiger

You may not even remember this, but a year ago, as Tiger Woods was on his way to winning the U.S. Open on a bum knee, a small segment of crazies came to believe that Tiger Woods may have, in fact, been faking his knee injury in the name of gamesmanship. It was a pretty daffy conspiracy theory, even as conspiracy theories go, and it was quickly debunked, but in the wake of that came this column for, in which the author marveled at Tiger's ability to camouflage whoever and whatever he was as some sort of protective mechanism. That column--not my best work, I admit--was something of a provocation, and the array of troglodytic comments underneath the story reveal that it succeeded on some level: People were both defensive of Tiger's right to privacy and reactionary toward any sort of scrutiny that delved beyond surface-level. They seemed to like Tiger Woods more because they knew nothing about him, because his entire life (outside of the practice of the most staid sport imaginable) seemed undramatic, because he was a cyborg with a 3-wood. They didn't want to know more than that. They (and I) didn't think they would ever have to.

Well, now they have no choice. Now, everything Tiger Woods carefully constructed in the past decade--and I would argue, a media strategy that has been built up in the past two decades, ever since Michael Jordan settled into a Nike-constructed cocoon*--has been torn down in a single morning. Now, we are likely to learn far more about Tiger Woods than we would ever care to know. This is the way of the modern scandal, and it always seemed as if Tiger were above such things, as if he simply existed in his own private space, free to chase Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships while every detail of his public life would forever be programmed by a roomful of MBAs. But now, suddenly, his private life is fodder for TMZ--and you can argue that Tiger doesn't owe us anything, and you can argue that this is an unwarranted intrusion into his private life, and you can argue that you preferred Tiger as a blank canvas--as a robotic manifestation of perfection***--and you may be right about all of it. But you also cannot deny that there is something undeniably fascinating--not to mention undeniably human--about watching an athlete who seemed determined to script his entire existence suddenly have to deal with an ad-lib.

*I write a little bit about the construction of athletes' public personas in Bigger Than the Game (AFPO!),** and spoke to Bo Jackson about it when I interviewed him. It's kind of amazing how the forces of sports marketing evolved from a non-entity into the Construction of Tiger. 

**Available for Pre-Order!

***In a word replete with needlessly dull information, Tiger's website is kind of a brilliant manifestation of nothingness. Did you know that Tiger's favorite movie is Caddyshack?  His blog is like one of those mass Christmas letters from the most boring uncle you could imagine--in "Tiger's" hands, a meeting with the president is boiled down to two non-committal paragraphs that appear to have been written by a public relations intern and sanitized by a Congressional committee ("I also enjoyed talking with the secret-service agents"). In "Tiger's world," choosing sides in the NBA Championship is an agonizing task. The whole site is structured like a Zen koan.

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