Golfer Tiger Woods— AP Athlete of the Decade and the wealthiest athlete in the world— is taking “an indefinite break from professional golf” in response to a flood of reports on his now admitted “infidelity.” (you can find the full story here)
Since professional athletes and politicians have a great deal in common—they live in the public eye and are celebrities of sorts—we thought aspects of the Woods affair might be of interest to our NoStringsGeneva readers.
Recalling our previous posts on trusting public officials, the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, and the plausible deniability of John Edwards, and others, we thought we might look at the public/private dichotomy in the Woods affair and the ways celebrity politicians and athletes manage their image, and the implications for our own civic engagement.
Athletes and politicians ultimately depend on the public, or various publics—voters, fans, etc.—for the positions they hold, so their image is important. Individually, fans and voters are relatively insignificant; but, in their collective actions (watching/supporting events and casting ballots) they confer wealth and power on athletes and candidates.
Most of these ‘transactions’ take place in the “public” realm: Voters respond to constructions of candidates built from messages about image, issues, and biography; Sports fans react mostly to athletic performances. What goes on in the “private” lives of athletes and politicians, we say, doesn’t matter much, unless they have done something terribly wrong, or flat out illegal.
But it’s not quite that simple. Politicians and athletes actively manage the disclosure of certain aspects of their private lives—such as information about their families and their likes and dislikes. They invite voters and fans into their private lives, mainly, we believe, to suggest something good about their character. “Family man” and “good son” or “hard working” and “sober” fill out the picture of a candidate or athlete worthy of our support and our trust.
Such disclosures are selective, so we can never be sure we are getting the whole story. Take President Barack Obama, who both smokes cigarettes and plays pickup basketball. He lets cameras into the gym, especially if he’s shooting hoops with servicemen, but he is shutter shy when he lights up.
ABC News observes, “Clearly mindful of the image issues smoking may cause, Obama has been careful to keep images of him with what health advocates call ‘cancer sticks’ out of the newspapers. Unlike Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, members of the media have been unable to find photographic images of Obama smoking even a cigar or pipe.”
However, as The Huffington Post reported this Fall, “White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs enlivened his daily press conference by showing reporters a blown up photo of President Obama blocking a shot by his bodyman Reggie Love during a basketball game.”
Now consider Tiger Woods. He made his reputation and created his image mostly with his amazing performances as a golfer. When it comes to any high performing athlete, and even though we are frequently disappointed, a certain amount of good character is assumed. Inherent in our admiration of athletes is an unstated assumption that underlying their performance is good character at work: hard work, discipline, sacrifice, self-control, etc.
For all his notoriety, Woods was said to be a private person. But, as private as he was, he selectively disclosed aspects of his private life. As he approached his late 20’s, his private narrative— the story of his life off the course—evolved from the good son of Earl Woods to a family man in his own right.
Earlier this year he released the family photo, at left, following the birth of his son.
The combination of ranking number one among the world’s golfers and stepping into the role of family man (husband, father, and good provider) created a powerful image of high performance and responsibility. Corporate sponsors loved the combination. The Tiger Woods brand was premised on a guy you could trust.
There was a lot of truth in that image of Woods. Athletes have something few politicians can claim, a public performance of actual, objective accomplishment. You could, in fact, count on Woods to win. No spin, he has won 93 professional tournaments, including 14 majors, since joining the tour in 1996.
And he is married to Elin Nordegren—former swimsuit model and nanny, and they do have two children. But, in light of his confessed “infidelity,” and a myriad of allegations adding up to promiscuous sex, the image was ultimately false.
With most politicians, we have less to go on. Barack Obama rose quickly from relative obscurity to prominence based largely on image—an image of intelligence and hope and charisma. That’s one of the reasons we’re always trying to get at the bedrock of a politician’s character and, in turn, why they are always managing their image. We want to know who we are putting in office: is this someone you can trust?
In all fairness, we all edit our self-disclosures, with a particular audience in mind. Erving Goffman’s classic sociological study, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), captures that sense of theater in our lives. What’s more, most would agree restraint in what we reveal about ourselves is the mark of a mature, sane, and civil person.
Our notion of a right to privacy, in its everyday social and legal dimensions, suggests that we want to be protected from unconsensual intrusions and that we ought to be in charge of what is revealed about us. It is up to us to decide what we wish to reveal, and to whom. The State of California, home to Hollywood and other dream factories, just enacted new legislation to further protect celebrities from paparazzi profiting from invasive photos.
In short, because we are after character, there is an approach/avoidance dance between the public and private lives of politicians and star athletes. That’s why they all manage their image in an age of spin—so that we will move our votes, our money, our very trust over to them. If we are lucky, image and reality match up, but they didn’t with Woods, Madoff, W. Bush in Iraq, Spitzer, and so on.
But what about the co-conspirators? Since Woods hit the tour, prize money has increased fourfold, so the entire PGA tour membership and their various dependents benefitted from Woods’s accomplishments and star power. When he missed most of the 2008 season with knee surgery, the audience for golf went down 50%.
Certainly, a great many folks must have known about Woods’s antics, but no one has spoken out. There’s too much at stake. Only a conspiracy of the tabloid press and several apparently jealous or fame-seeking lovers could bring them to light.
The same is true in politics: powerful people develop an extensive network of dependents who then help to submerge any scandalous behavior. In the case of Eliot Spitzer, how could the governor of the State of New York sneak off with prostitutes on a regular basis without a fair number of people knowing about it? So, too, with John Edwards, and with Bernie Madoff, dozens of folks must have been aware of his ponzi scheme but were in some way benefitting from it and therefore remained silent.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich-- reflecting on America’s “flight from truth” in the past decade, says we allowed ourselves, almost willfully, to be “spun silly” and “bamboozled” and “conned” by “shams” and “flimflams” and “ruses” and “fraudulent images,” i.e., by “men who played us for suckers.” He then drew direct comparisons between Obama and Woods:
“Though the American left and right don’t agree on much, they are both now coalescing around the suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image.”
For Woods, does it really matter to us, even his sponsors, that he cheated on his wife so deliberately, so repeatedly, recklessly, and hurtfully? People say his next victory, perhaps as early as the 2010 Masters, will put all this behind him, and fans will forgive him. What matters is his awesome achievement on the course.
The problem with spin in the real world is that reality ultimately catches up. Lives are lost fruitlessly in Iraq. Fortunes are lost on Wall Street. And so, too, the public purpose can be lost, and the people lose.
Saturday, January 2
Posted by Capraro and Augustine at 2:05 PM