Treat him as a golfer not a role model

We should hammer Tiger Woods if he gets caught in a bunker, not for who he bunks up with in his private life.

Duleep Allirajah

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Sweet Lord Jesus, the über-bland Tiger Woods just got interesting. I’ll be honest with you: golf doesn’t do it for me as a sport. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced it is a proper sport. As a form of gentle exercise for pensioners it’s admirable. But a sport? Do me a favour. I’d rather watch paint dry. However, putting aside that debate for now, even a hardened golf-hater like me finds it difficult to stomach the public ‘shoot the Tiger’ campaign to which the golfer has been subjected.

Tiger’s demise has certainly been dramatic. ‘Tiger Woods’ self-imposed exile from golf is the most stunning – and stunningly rapid – fall from grace in the history of sport’, declared US journalist Dave Zirin. As collapses go it’s certainly up there – or should that be down? – with the Wall Street crash or watching a tower block get demolished. I’m tempted to say it’s great car-crash television but I’m above cheap gags like that

Woods has endured one hell of a hammering in recent weeks. First he drove his Cadillac into a fire hydrant. Then came the kiss-and-tell stories. Next his sponsors started bailing out. Now Tiger has announced he’s taking an indefinite break from golf. But you don’t need me to tell you all this. You’ve seen the wall-to-wall media coverage not to mention the viral email jokes at Woods’ expense. It’s not just a sports story; it’s a national scandal. The toppling of an American icon. It’s official: Tiger is toast.

Invariably, Woods’ conduct has been condemned by those who believe that sports stars are role models. ‘In a lot of ways Tiger Woods has broken the hearts of a lot of people who looked at him as a role model who was above all those things’, said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. ‘It was just so far out of bounds with what anyone considers normal behaviour.’ Sure, we can learn a lot from great sportsmen about the quest for excellence.

But why should Tiger Woods or any other sporting superstar be expected to provide moral leadership? It’s a bit silly when you pause to think about it. We don’t expect the Archbishop of Canterbury to curl in a free kick like David Beckham. Yet, for some reason, we expect footballers to conduct themselves like men of the cloth.

Normally I take no interest in Tiger Woods’ career. Just as golf doesn’t thrill me, Woods isn’t my idea of a sporting legend. He’s just too clean cut and anodyne for my taste. I prefer my sporting heroes a little rough round the edges. Or else a bit mental. Give me Diego Maradona over the squeaky clean Michael Owen any day. Ironically, while Tiger’s reputation has undoubtedly taken the mother of all batterings, the scandal has also added a dash of colour to an otherwise monotone personality. Let’s be honest, Tiger the love rat is a damn sight more interesting that Tiger the clean-cut, all-American hero. ‘As cynical as it sounds, it has humanised what appeared to be this way-too-perfect robot’, said Professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. ‘I think it has attracted people who didn’t have an interest in Tiger Woods to have an interest in him… For probably a couple of million guys out there Tiger Woods is now someone they feel a lot closer to.’

If the furore that has engulfed Woods was just about his status as a top golfer then he could probably tough it out. There’s no reason why marital problems should affect his ability to win golf tournaments. The problem confronting Woods is that while Tiger the golfer should recover, Tiger the brand might not. His image sells stuff. Lots of stuff. He reportedly trousers $110million (£67 million) a year from product endorsements. And, while male golf fans may not give a jot about his private life – in fact many probably admire his philandering – some of his sponsors are running scared. They don’t want their brands contaminated.

Proctor & Gamble and Gillette have both said they would be limiting the use of Woods to advertise their products while consulting firm Accenture issued a statement saying: ‘After careful consideration and analysis, the company has determined that he is no longer the right representative for its advertising.’ You can call it prudent brand management, but it looks and smells like cowardice to me.

Sportswear giant Nike is one of the big name sponsors who have stood by the golfer. ‘When his career is over, you’ll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip, but the media is making a big deal out of it right now’, said Nike chairman Phil Knight. It’s a pity that the brand chiefs at Accenture and Gillette haven’t held their nerve in a similar way. With a bit of imagination and courage they could have taken a lead from the Charles Barkley ad campaign. Those Nike Air adverts featured the basketball star declaring: ‘I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court. Parents should be role models.’

Woods certainly isn’t the first sportsman who has slept around or cheated on his missus. So why the ferocity of the Tiger hunt? I think the media have undoubtedly given Woods a particularly hard time because of his dogged refusal to follow the Oprah road to redemption. Fellow golfer Steve Stricker is one of those who urged Woods to repent in public. ‘I’d like to see him come on TV and just pour it out a little bit, show what’s happened a little bit’, said Stricker. But Woods hasn’t played the game. Instead of tearfully fessing up on television, he has steadfastly refused to talk about his private life. A statement published on Woods’ website says: ‘Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.’

Tiger might be boring but I’m with him on this. Crucify him if he gets stuck in a bunker. But who he bunks up with in his private life is nobody else’s business.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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