December 4, 2009

I was a guest this week on WHYY’s radio talk show “Radio Times” to discuss coverage of the Tiger Woods scandal. The host, Marty Moss-Coane, seemed at first a little apologetic to her audience that a public radio hour was being devoted to celebrity gossip. She went on to say that a day earlier her show on the war in Afghanistan attracted very few callers. When the talk turned to Tiger, the phone lines lit up. We know now that this story has what old school editors would call “legs.”

Based upon that show and what I’ve heard and read over several days, here are some of my observations, reflections, and questions for further coverage, a notes column on the Tale of the Tiger.

  • On issues related to spousal abuse there is a double standard for men and women. If the alleged aggressor in this story had been a jealous husband rather than an angry wife, does anyone doubt the swinger of the golf club would have been arrested?
  • It appears that there are three worlds in which marital infidelity is the default position: high political office, celebrity entertainment and professional sports. The princes of those worlds share celebrity, power, wealth, arrogance, a sense of invulnerability, and lots of travel, what the Catholic catechism used to call “occasions of sin.”
  • Famous marital infidels: Bill Clinton (former governor and president), Eliot Spitzer (former governor), the former governor of New Jersey, the current governor of South Carolina, JFK, RFK, FDR, John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, A-Rod, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Mickey Mantle, almost every rock star on the planet.
  • The best detail so far: that the alleged attack (or rescue) involved a golf club. Both golfers and writers want to know which club Elin Woods grabbed. Golfer Jesper Parnevik, who introduced Tiger and Elin, said that next time he hopes she uses “a driver instead of a 3-iron.”  I’ve seen no confirmation of her choice of clubs.
  • Tom Jones of the St. Pete Times offers the short list of the admirable athletes we have left.  He includes religious types like former coach Tony Dungy and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.  But he also includes Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, who in spite of his Big City profile and his serial dating of some of the world’s hottest women, retains a clean reputation. Why?  Because he has remained single, like George Clooney. Maybe that’s the secret.
  • Tiger’s situation is magnified not just because of his status but because of his sport. Anyone who has seen the movie “Bagger Vance” understands the codes of honor that dominate golf, which require a golfer to call a penalty on himself even for an inadvertent violation of the rules. So Tiger honored his golf vows, but not his marital vows.
  • In spite of the likes of John Daly, golf has an aura of respectability, unlike basketball and football, both of which suffer a reputation of thuggishness. But that’s mostly an illusion.  Those close to golf understand the locker room mentality that dominates even the most aristocratic of sports.
  • Ted Kennedy proved that it was possible to recover from scandal, even one that involved the drowning death of a young woman. He did the smart thing: let the lovers love and the haters hate, and devote the rest of his career to public service. Perhaps Tiger Woods should use this opportunity to cast off some of his defenses and find more ways to devote himself in public ways to the greater good.
  • When I last checked the official Tiger Woods Web site, there were more than 17,000 messages posted by fans and detractors. About half of them tried to support and console Tiger; the other half expressed criticism and disappointment. I appreciate that the site allowed even harsh criticism to stand, a rare example in this mess of some transparency and accountability.
  • Don’t we all live two lives, one public, one private? Aren’t we all vulnerable to the public exposure of our private “transgressions”? Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter both appeared to be faithful to their wives, but neither was considered an effective president. Yet we honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a national day — and rightly so — in spite of his extra-marital affairs. An unfaithful husband or wife can still be a faithful public servant.
  • I sense huge gender differences in the response to these revelations. Women: “How could he do such a thing? After all, he has such a beautiful wife and children? What a disappointment.”  Men: “How stupid can you be, man? If you are going to cheat, you must be discreet. And don’t ever write anything down or leave a phone message that you don’t want broadcast on national television.”
  • Someone said that to call cheating men “dogs” is unfair to the dogs. Men’s desire for sex seems stoked by their wives’ unavailability because of travel, pregnancy, or disease (cf. the sad case of that well-groomed dog John Edwards).
  • Why is this a news story? To borrow some of Mel Mencher’s categories, it is timely  and offers elements of conflict, prominence, currency and the bizarre. More than that, though, are the larger cultural questions that many of us are chatting about, including marital relations, sex, money, forgiveness, violence, gender, race, celebrity and much more.
  • Eric Dezenhall and I debated on the air the branding and public relations implications of the Tiger Woods story. Dezenhall, a damage control consultant and author, made a persuasive case that in this day and age “less is more.” With a 24-hour cable news cycle, each revelation, no matter how small, fuels a new burst of coverage. My take was more traditional: The wisest move is to get ahead of the story, to preempt invasive coverage with public disclosure, the way that David Letterman did in his self-deprecating televised confessions of sexual relations with members of his staff.
  • Dezenhall and I quoted Aristotle and medieval literature on the issue of tragic flaws, so I felt compelled to offer up this piece of wisdom from the late great Soupy Sales: “People in glass houses shouldn’t invite Sophia Loren over for the weekend.”
Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
More by Roy Peter Clark

More News

Back to News