By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 3, 2009
If Tiger Woods had avoided the scandalous episode that now envelops him and has forced him to plead for privacy he would have become the great exception. While Tiger is the first professional athlete to be smoked out quite this way in the Internet age, where salacious gossip is more eagerly consumed than a White House press conference, he nonetheless joins a club that includes plenty of other top male athletes of his generation.
Comedian Chris Rock undoubtedly put it best when he said, "A man is only as faithful as his options." And few men have the sexual options of the most famous athletes in the world. Even if we confine the conversation to the most famous American athletes of their times, we're still talking about a list that has to include Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and Alex Rodriguez.
Whispers and innuendo followed Ruth and Louis. TMZ and US Magazine stalk Tiger Woods.
Regardless of how one feels about marital infidelity, the only difference between Woods and the icons who preceded him is the increasing tolerance (dare I say appetite) for the details of their personal lives. Fact is, over the last century the greatest athletes of whatever day are virtually winless against sexual temptation. Actually, I can think of one athlete who was the most famous of his day whose name was never attached, that I know of, to any rumors of infidelity -- Jackie Robinson. That's it, that's the list.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying every athlete is unfaithful. I've covered guys, some who played their careers in this town, that I would bet my own money are faithful. But they aren't the greatest of their day, the Bambinos and Tigers, guys who could walk into a room and turn, say, Frank Sinatra's head, just to pick an American icon who exercised his own options, and brazenly at that.
The point here isn't to condone Tiger's transgressions (his word); it's to say we need a little context. I'm sure there are many who will read this column (if they're still with me) and scream bloody murder that I'm not upset at what they'd consider a lack of virtue in Woods. My take on this has been pretty consistent over my 30 years as an adult and as a sportswriter who has gotten to know some of the people on the above list fairly well. Virtue in sports is whether you can hit a jumper as time expires in the playoffs, or hit 50 home runs in a season, or sink a putt on the 72nd hole to win the Masters.
Look, infidelity can take down elected officials (though not John Fitzgerald Kennedy and, in the final analysis, not William Jefferson Clinton). It can rub out a guy in the office, like Steve Phillips of ESPN. But it's not taking down the greatest athletes of our time. Hell, it stopped Magic Johnson's basketball career and he became even bigger and more significant in his second public life.
Do people even remember that a guy who's not even on the Most Famous Athlete Ever list, Wade Boggs, had an entire crazy secret life of infidelity and he kept right on playing, kept right on eatin' his chicken and driving hits to left-center field? No matter how loud the whispering got, it didn't take down Ruth. And though there will be much ridicule, it ain't taking down Tiger Woods either.
Do people expect more of Tiger because he plays golf, the game where men voluntarily call penalties on themselves? Maybe. But trust me, there could be a golfer or two on the above list as well, except the one I'm thinking of somehow avoided public rumor-mongering. Perhaps it's because they know so little about Tiger, who sought to maintain a great degree of privacy and control even when he was single. One of the things that must drive Woods crazy right now is that he cannot buy himself any degree of privacy, can't control the loose lips of a young waitress with a voice mail message and nothing to lose. Voice mail couldn't bring down Ruth or Joltin' Joe.
I don't know whether Tiger, with this episode so fresh, has learned any great lesson and I don't particularly care. I do believe he was sincere when he said Wednesday in a statement, "I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect. I am dealing with my behavior and personal failings behind closed doors with my family."
Tiger went on to write a sentence that will probably be lost in the noise of all this, but one I agree with completely. "Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions."
Not from athletes, not from rockers and rappers, not from people who make us laugh or shout. But what Tiger Woods is finding out is that it's a new day, one where absolutely nothing is kept in-house. But he can take professional solace, perhaps, in the fact that the people on the above list, those among the greatest ever at the games they mastered, played right through the embarrassment and ridicule and once on the other side seemed really no worse for wear.