Scott Tinley, a two-time Ironman World Champion, is a professor teaching sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. He is the author of several books. His most recent work is Racing the Sunset.
How exactly did one of the most famous athletes of this era, the recently-voted Athlete of the Decade, become a star in his own snuff film? The answer may be, like Woods himself, something other than what it appears.
At face value, Woods appears to be yet another entitled uber-performer whose______ (fill in the blank: addiction, hubris, dishonesty, immorality) circled back on him. But a more careful, if not open-minded, study both indicts and explains celebrity culture. Regardless of how you feel about Woods' choices, his story resonates with us because it does what any powerful narrative can-it transcends, entertains, stimulates and educates. It connects us in ways that older forms of art used to do. Only bigger.
Culture on steroids. Tales for mass consumption. And perhaps with some significance, Woods actions offers us a vehicle to both personally reflect on our own moral decisions but also to opine in the public sphere on subjects that don't easily enter the dinner table discourse.
The story of Tiger Woods confounds as easily as it thrills and disgusts us. Why, we ask, would he risk everything for momentary physical pleasure? It has to be so much more than that. Power? Control? Something Freudian? Or maybe just another physical extension of his inner being; a man playing women the way he played golf. And this unfolding drama where motive is but one of the many subplots, is what fascinates us.
Unlike other forms of popular entertainment, including commercial sport, as an actor in his own film, there is no end, even after this story and the athlete himself pass. And though his tale will certainly subside as we lose interest and move on to other unfolding narratives, like any great protagonist through history Woods will forever be known for more than a single trait, for more than being the greatest golfer of his time.
And if told to the world in such a way that we can somehow feel his agony, his place in celebrity culture will only become more secure.
Now, as the story gets curiouser and curiouser, the questions about subplots expand. Is Woods paying for the sins of every entangled tryst in a postmodern society that is rapidly losing its understanding of the ancient institution of marriage? Why have the popular media's ubiquitous inquiries focused on the temporary decline in his value as a pitchman instead of perhaps asking ourselves why we gain such perverse pleasure in dancing on his grave? Why are some of his sponsors and the PGA Tour publically stating that they are "concerned first for Tiger and Tiger's family" as if the man himself is in fact a separate entity from his wife and children?
Any number of highly-skilled artists and athletes suffer from fractured identities at various periods in their life. And many more are subverting celebrity culture and the tyranny of fame either by constructing and managing their own image (think Madonna, think Twitter) or by disappearing into the gated-fold of purchased privacy (think J.D. Salinger). But Woods is human with human traits. Perhaps like many extra-marital affairs, he was subconsciously longing for some consequential reintegration of Self by getting caught.
Any supposition of blame beyond Woods' own actions risks indictment of our own voyeurism. If you say, "enough already, I'm done with this wife-cheater" than why are you reading this? To expand the blame we also expose the vicissitudes of a free market system. Woods' brand has grown well beyond the man behind it. And now, his fallibility as a human, transferred from bedroom to boardroom, he must be gladitorialized; he must pay for his sins, earn back our respect, redeem himself and re-enter the world of the gods, bruised but made more powerful for his humanness. There is great profit in heartfelt comebacks.
Pundits have claimed his brand capitol is salvageable if he can do what he once did- vicariously thrill us to consider our own potential. He will be reminded how capitalism relies on producing more than you use, gaining back his capitol on the backs of Marx's dead labor in which, as Marx suggests, our system is "vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives all the more, the more labor it sucks." Right now, Woods life must suck. Regardless of how hard he worked to get where he is. But we should thank him for the prompt to self-reflect, to perhaps thank our own partners.
Still, we ask if we should care in this Shelley-esque story where we, as consumers, are Woods' creator. But in caring more about his story than health care and the war in Afghanistan, has he become our master? Should we really care about a man who had his cake and wanted to lick the frosting from our spoons? Yes, very much so.
Because his disease is a society's symptom.
What would suck for the masses is if we continue to create, consume and discard athlete/heroes as human capital. What Woods did to his fans is what his fans are doing to him right now. His public flogging is our own. His end of privacy is one more Reality TV show that we are gladly force-fed. His second chance will be our own desire for redemption.
As Pogo suggested on the first Earth Day poster in 1970-"We have met the enemy. And he is us."
Woods will survive this. But I have my reservations about a world that projects itself too far into a man who is godly-revered for chasing a little white ball into a hole.
By Scott Tinley
Special to CBSNews.com
Copyright 2009 CBS. All rights reserved.