Tiger Woods’ self-imposed exile from golf is the most stunning — and stunningly rapid — fall from grace in the history of sports. Not since Michael Jordan retired from basketball in 1993, following the murder of his father, has a world-class athlete voluntarily taken himself out of his sport in his prime.
Woods’ exile may last three months or it may last three years. But one thing is certain: Unlike the 24-hour, wall-to-wall sleaze that’s dominated the airwaves since the initial revelations of Woods’ infidelity, this is actual news. After 14 years of being protected by the press, the Tiger has become carrion.
The jury is out on whether Tiger’s retreat makes him more sympathetic. But years from now when we look back at this saga, I hope we remember that Mr. Woods didn’t choose to leave golf until his sponsors left him. Woods announced his departure on Dec. 11. He hadn’t been on a prime time commercial since Nov. 29, three days after the accident, according to the Nielson Co.
Accenture dropped him from the homepage of its Web site. AT&T told him not to call. Gillette said it could find others to shave for the camera. Every part of Tiger Woods Inc. sized up his moment of desperate need and, instead of offering solidarity and support, ran for cover.
So here is Tiger Woods in 2010: no tour, a busted marriage, and alone with nothing but his sweatshops to keep him warm. This is what we call chickens roosting.
The least attractive part of Woods’ persona — including all recent peccadilloes — is his complete absence of conscience when it comes to peddling his billion-dollar brand. Tiger has been the sport’s willing avatar, traveling the global south seeking new acres to conquer. The sports media has for years closed ranks around Tiger, defending his right “to not be political.”
But he has been political. It’s the politics of using golf as a weapon to reap untold riches and all the other attendant privileges of fame. It’s the politics of selling yourself as a trailblazing icon, while rolling your eyes at the struggles that made your ascendance possible. It’s the politics of placing your brand above any and all other concerns. It’s the politics of turning a blind eye to your corporate partners’ malfeasance, when there is a buck to be made.
This is the real teachable moment of this whole circus: If you front for the worst of the worst, don’t expect anyone to have your back.
— Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation magazine.
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