Some lessons, courtesy of Tiger

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In the midst of one of the most stunning public-relations meltdowns in American sports history, it’s helpful to pause from the flood of news revelations about Tiger Woods and take stock as to what all of this means.

1.) To start with, it’s not clear why someone deserves vast riches and all sorts of accolades as a hero just because he can successfully deliver a ball from one spot to another. There’s no doubt Woods has been a great golfer – probably the greatest ever, and certainly the most dramatic. But there’s something strange about venerating that skill – or any other athletic skill – as worthy of iconic status and showering vast wealth in off-course endorsements upon the person for it.

Lesson 1: Be wary of making athletes into heroes.

2.) One good rule of thumb for celebrities is not to get too carried away believing what you read in the media about yourself, especially when you’ve helped shape the message and image that’s in circulation. Woods Inc. worked hard at crafting a certain aura about the man, at protecting his privacy and presenting him as a transcendent cultural figure who went about the world saying impeccably uncontroversial things.

Lesson 2: What sports fans (and celebrities themselves) read in the everyday press and on the Internet is in part the product of a certain image management that should not be mistaken for the whole truth.

3.) Leading golfers these days have extremely complicated schedules, with their lives and interviews largely in the hands of agents and media managers. The result is a loss of a strong connection to hometown writers and traditional media. The golf press, like journalists in other sports, doesn’t have quite the access or knowledge that it used to be granted to these players behind the scenes. And while the media have far more access to the public careers and achievements of these players than ever before, there’s still a lot behind the scenes that evades scrutiny.

Lesson 3: Neither the public nor the journalistic corps has a definitive idea of what these athletes are really like as people behind the scenes.

4.) Teams, leagues and whole sports that hang their future on one superstar do so at their own peril. The PGA Tour has made it known that Woods has been its biggest draw. TV ratings go up when he plays. Attendance at events gets a big boost. There’s more coverage in the golf and non-golf media when he plays. But staking a whole schedule on his appearance is dangerous, not only because it relegates events at which he doesn’t play to second-tier status, but also because if he’s unable to perform, is injured or unexpectedly becomes tainted with scandal, everybody suffers.

Lesson 4: A sport is healthiest when it enjoys genuine rivalry and competition among its lead athletes rather than dominance by one player.

5.) For a while, it seemed that Woods was going to render obsolete everything written about the mystery and elusiveness of golf; that no could win all of the time; that failure is part of the equation; that the counterpart to triumph is losing gracefully; that the game’s drama resides in its essential difficulty; and that golf reveals character flaws as well as character strengths. He hit all of those shots under pressure and created so much drama with stunning wins that he seemed to have come from another, bionic world and revolutionized golf in the process. And yet along the way there was something intense about his demeanor, something extreme about his fist pumping, the pouty one-armed swing finishes, the cursing, the intolerance of any criticism. Maybe it was a kind of intensity that welled up underneath – golf’s equivalent of Poe’s telltale heart. The European press was more critical of this than the American press, which after all, has been bred on a generation of ESPN highlights and so accustomed to, if not welcoming of, such demonstrativesness. At the risk of speculation, in retrospect, we now know that Woods betrayed a level of emotional involvement and exuberance that shows (Lesson 5) that he was in fact human, all too human, after all.

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