By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, December 12, 2009
The flames of the brush fire that is the Tiger Woods scandal burn so out of control, they now threaten the career of the greatest golfer and most accomplished athlete on the face of the earth. Certainly he isn't the first athlete to be defeated by the temptation that is infidelity, but it seems possible now he could be the first to be undone by indiscretion.
We now have one whale of a sports story. Tiger Woods wrote on his Web site Friday evening that he is taking an indefinite leave of absence from golf.
The toll of more than a dozen women going public to say they've had sex with Tiger has unnerved him in a way that no opponent, no eight-foot putt, ever has. The world's first billion-dollar athlete finds himself asking forgiveness for philandering from a society that routinely shows more compassion to professional athletes who have been accused of rape and sometimes even murder.
Since every day seems to be worse than the day before, it's quite possible there are worse days to come for Woods. There are questions about painkillers and his condition when he took to the wheel well after midnight Thanksgiving night. Are there more women with more revelations, information that will send sponsors running and spike the sales of the tabloid rags for another two weeks? Maybe Tiger, knowing what we don't know, figures it's simply time to retreat now and begin the process of becoming the person his mom and dad raised him to be, the person he surely was before, like so many other famous men, he tangled with temptation and suffered a TKO.
Whether it's his fame, his success as an international pitchman based on an image of intellect and decency, or his being subject to the agenda of a stunned if naive fan base with its own ideas on sex and, yes, race, the Woods scandal is being treated like nothing we've ever seen. And Woods is now set to pay for it, perhaps dearly.
Long before the mistress count had reached a baker's dozen, which is where it stands as I write these words, it was becoming apparent that a leave of absence might be coming. Looks like a victory for those who have spent the better part of two weeks damning Woods, especially the moralists and hypocrites who would overlook anyone else guilty of the same regrettable behavior, including their fathers, brothers and sons, bosses, co-workers and best friends.
Substitute the name of almost any famous actor, band member, rapper or reality celebrity and ask yourself if the reaction to that man's behavior would be the same as the overreaction to Woods's dalliances. The only reaction I've seen that makes any sense to me is Jack Nicklaus's response that the whole affair is "none of my business." Nicklaus appears to be in a group so small it could fit in a phone booth.
There's no doubt Woods could use some time to get his life together and try, difficult as it might be, to earn forgiveness from his wife and family. But essentially, the people who now consider themselves righteous enough to tell people how to live their lives, presumably perfect people like columnist friends that I didn't know had degrees in counseling, must have what they want now. Woods is going away.
If we're talking about sports, the big loser, of course, will be professional golf. Television audiences will be cut in half, perhaps more. Who knows what will happen here in Washington to the tournament in Woods's name that is scheduled to go to Philadelphia this year and next, then return to Washington in 2012. Who knows what the members at Congressional Country Club think now about being affiliated with a tournament hosted by Tiger Woods. The day before Thanksgiving, it was perhaps the most desired association in all of sports; now that TW logo might represent more baggage than anyone in the conservative golf community wants to carry.
For the past 10 years, Tiger Woods has been the dominant athlete in the world. It's possible he's better at golf than any athlete is at any sport. The telegenic Arnold Palmer popularized professional golf in the 1950s; Woods took it to new and unimaginable heights in the 1990s and oughts. A man considered black in America became the face of the whitest sport on the planet, in the process redefining what we thought of mental toughness, competitive intelligence and grace under athletic pressure. His winning the U.S. Open on a broken leg in 2008 remains one of the sublime achievements in the history of sports.
In 45 years of obsessively following sports, first as a child and then as a sportswriter, almost nothing has given me the joy of watching Muhammad Ali box, Michael Jordan play basketball and Tiger Woods play golf. And from the looks of golf television ratings, Wood's pre-Thanksgiving popularity and his bank account, I'm not the only one who put him in that company.
Now, under the strangest circumstances and for reasons that have nothing to do with his craft, every attribute Woods ever imagined he had will be tested. He frequently scoffed when it was suggested that getting married would change his life and, as a result, his career. Turns out, it wasn't a concern he should have taken so for granted.