We are a nation of busybodies

Poor Tiger Woods. After carefully controlling his image for nearly 15 years as a international celebrity (he was actually on “The Mike Douglas Show” when he was 2, already showing off his golf swing), Woods probably figured that the media might cut him some slack when it came to explaining -- or actually not explaining -- what happened in the wee hours of Nov. 27 when he crashed his car outside his Florida home.

But the crash, and Woods’ inability to provide a logical account of his behavior, unleashed the media dogs from hell. Now, Woods finds himself deep in the rough, with several women having suddenly popped up, eager for their 15 minutes of fame, happy to divulge details of their alleged sexual affairs with the golf legend. (One woman claims to have had a 31-month-long affair with Woods.)

But the most depressing aspect of the whole imbroglio is that Woods still harbors the quaint notion that, having broken no major laws, done no physical harm and never uttered a controversial word in his life, he should be allowed some privacy while he mends his fences. As he put it in a statement Wednesday:

“I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. . . . Although I am a well-known person and have made my career as a professional athlete, I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means. For the last week my family and I have been hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives. . . . Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.”

Have sadder words ever been said? Because Woods couldn’t be more right. He’s not a public official nor a high-minded preacher or cable TV public scold. What he does with his private life should be his own (pardon the pun) affair. Sure, he has zillion-dollar endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, but he earned those deals because he’s the greatest golfer of his generation, not because he’s a paragon of personal virtue. But in today’s wildly intrusive media universe, being a winner isn’t enough to protect your privacy.


We are a nation of busybodies, and when a hero or a champion or someone who is perceived as a role model turns out to have feet of clay, we feel a need to know every prurient detail about his or her transgressions, no matter how little they have to do with the hero’s public performance. For years, baseball writers have been on a witch hunt against steroid users, heaping scorn and hurling charges against a variety of stars, often on the flimsiest of evidence. But at least you can argue that steroids, as performance-enhancing drugs, are a form of cheating, enabling athletes to achieve goals and win awards they didn’t deserve.

But the only cheating Tiger has done is most likely on his wife. He hasn’t forsaken his public or disgraced the game of golf. The justification for digging up the dirt on Tiger, according to a sportswriter who was interviewed on NPR on Wednesday, boils down to this: In the media, we are not very good at letting go of a story until there are some clear answers.

Of course, that’s not exactly true. The media have let go of stories all the time, from how cooked-up evidence of weapons of mass destruction led to the invasion of Iraq to how, in the midst of a horrible financial meltdown, Wall Street fat cats got bailed out by the government while regular folks got the shaft.

But those are tough stories. The salacious stories that revolve around shameless behavior, whether it’s Tiger’s transgressions or the “balloon boy” or the brazen White House state dinner gate-crashers, they get the media full-court press, complete with front-page headlines and congressional hearings.

I suspect that Tiger is undergoing the media’s version of the full monty in large part because he’s a tabloid virgin. This is his first brush with scandal, the first tarnishing of his image. With rare exception, the more squeaky clean the celebrity, the more vigilant the scrutiny. If Charles Barkley’s wife chased him down the driveway with a golf club tomorrow night, no one would bat an eye, since he already has a long string of bad-boy behavior that has lowered our surprise factor. Ditto for Charlie Sheen or Kiefer Sutherland or Michael Vick. But if Derek Jeter or Peyton Manning were nabbed in a drug bust or arrested in a nightclub fight, the media hell hounds would be in full pursuit.

So Tiger has to play the game, the modern-day media kabuki dance of acknowledging his sins, asking for forgiveness and allowing himself to be humbled and cleansed, not by seeking out a spiritual guide, but by going on TV, sitting down with Oprah or Diane Sawyer or Bob Costas and facing the music. We demand public contrition from our heroes. The good news is that Tiger will survive, since as the old Arab parable goes: The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. There will be a new scandal, a new celebrity in trouble and the media circus will pitch its tents at his door.

No one knows this better than Allan Mayer, a veteran crisis management consultant who’s now a principal partner at 42 West. He’s the guy who first laid out Rule No. 1 of celebrity scandal problem solving, which holds that if you don’t tell your story, chances are that someone will tell it for you -- and you probably won’t like how it turns out. Mayer was optimistic about Woods’ future, noting that the public views athletes in a different light than movie stars.

“For a movie star to be successful, the public has to love you,” he said. “But for an athlete to be successful, they simply have to win. All Tiger has to do is win a few big golf tournaments. If he doesn’t play well, the story will probably stay alive, because everyone will be wondering: Why isn’t he winning? Are his private issues affecting his performance? But if he starts winning, he’ll be fine.”

In other words, in America, whether you’re playing pee-wee football in Midland, Texas, or holing a long putt on the 18th hole of the Masters at Augusta, winning cures just about everything.