Monday, April 12, 2010


“Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.”
---Mammy Yokum (in “Li’l Abner”)

Unless there’s a World Series and the Phillies happen to be in it, The Masters is usually my favorite sports event of the year. I look forward to it and I read about it and I watch it on TV. And this year, of course, there was an extra sense of anticipation for the event because it would mark Tiger’s return to golf. I wanted to see how he would act, and how the fans would behave, and how he would play. Well, here’s what I learned.

It’s hard to care much about Tiger anymore.

He’s a truly great golfer, of course. He’s clearly the best of this generation and, to the extent such things can be measured, possibly the greatest of all time. He makes shots that other great players would not even attempt. When he’s on his game (which is often), he dominates his sport. As an athlete, he is unique in many ways.

And yet…. And yet…. Well, so what? He may well be the best golfer of all time, but SO WHAT? Watching him play, and he has played very well indeed, I realized I was rooting against him, and I was annoyed by the incessant focus on him. Every shot by Tiger is televised, for example; this is not true for any other player. Periodically, during the telecast, there is also a segment of all his highlights from the day’s play. In addition, there will be interviews of experts about his play, and the scrutiny he is under, and the fans’ reactions to him, and his interaction with the gallery, and how he has adjusted his play to the new groove pattern on his irons, and anything else they can think of to talk about that has some tangential relation to Tiger Woods.

In many ways, the rehabilitation of Tiger Woods, and the refurbishing of the Tiger Woods industry, is more sickening than the behavior that got him into trouble. At this point, we all know the drill, don’t we? Seclusion for a couple weeks, then a sympathetic interview by a carefully-chosen journalist. A tear is shed, mea culpas are issued, then more seclusion, perhaps in a therapeutic facility of some sort. Another friendly interview. Then, finally, an announcement that the miscreant, though he is still “working on his issues,” is ready to reemerge into a public life. The entire process is now a required course in the Celebrity Handler Program at the University of Texas.

In Tiger’s case, the rehab dance was more elaborate and nauseating than most because---well, he’s Tiger, and there’s more money at stake. The Nike ad produced for Masters Week was the culmination of this initial stage of the rehab campaign, and a copy of it should be enshrined in the Smithsonian as a dreadful artifact of the celebrity-rehab process, circa 2010.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to. It consists of Tiger standing motionless and silent, staring at the screen. He is neither happy nor sad. He is just standing there, a blank. Then we hear the voice of his father, as if the voice is playing in Tiger’s head. Earl Woods wants to know how Tiger feels, and whether he has learned anything. About what, you wonder. About obsessively pursuing strippers and porn stars? About marriage? About what it feels like to take a 9-iron in the medulla oblongata? It makes no sense, and you can be certain that if Earl Woods were alive, this Yoda-like ethereal musing is not what he would be saying to his son.

The first thing that strikes you about this ad is that someone, some individual, had to think of it and believe it was a good idea. Play the dead-daddy card? Brilliant! (Deepak Chopra was probably too busy to do the voice-over and they couldn’t get the rights to Martin Luther King.) Then Tiger had to agree to it, and twenty other lost souls in Tiger’s retinue and in the corporate offices at Nike, had to approve. We know that no one objected, because if even one person had done so, everyone else would have instantly seen the danger and run scurrying back to their offices to issue back-dated memos condemning it and demanding its creator be fired. But that didn’t happen. The ad was produced and broadcast to the world. It appears there is not a single individual in the entire Tiger Woods industry who thinks the way normal people do.

So now Tiger is back and I find myself wishing he weren’t. He’s a great golfer, maybe the greatest, but his return makes me realize that the world doesn’t need more great golfers. What the world really needs is good behavior. And the process that now routinely returns disgraced, immoral, and even criminal individuals to the public stage does nothing to ensure we will see any good behavior in the future. Unless there is a meaningful price to be paid for bad behavior, there will only be more and more of it.

Shame worked. Disgrace worked. Fifty years ago, when a famous person did something very, very wrong, that was the end of his career. There was no clinic to make him better and no talk-show host to share his pain. It was simply understood that certain lines should never be crossed and that, if they were (or at least if you got caught crossing them), the party was over. You would retire to the country to raise root vegetables and go fishing. In twenty years or so, you could write your memoirs, but you would never be allowed back into the inner circle. And it worked. The possibility of disgrace served to restrain people from succumbing to certain temptations. All of us benefit when there is a mechanism (short of criminal statutes) that deters us from giving in to our basest instincts.

Today, that mechanism is gone. Tiger is back. Eliot Spitzer is ready to stage a comeback. Even John Edwards wants to return to politics. Ten years ago, Jesse Jackson set the current land-speed record when, following news of his love-child, he announced he would retire from public life only to appear nine days later at a rally about some presumed incident of racial discrimination.

I want them all to go away. Goodbye Eliot and John and Jesse. We don’t NEED you, you see. There are others out there who can fill your role just as well as you can, and they are better people than you are, so we are going to give those other guys a chance. We can’t trust you anymore. You pretended to be something you weren’t, so now you have to go away. It’s nothing personal, you see. It’s just that if we make YOU go away, future guys in your positions will get the message it doesn’t pay to be a crook, a fraud or a jerk.

If only it worked that way….

The fault lies not with the Celebrity Handler Program or with Nike or even with Tiger, of course. The fault lies with us for our willingness to accept the obvious fraud being perpetrated, and for our failure to demand some standard of personal responsibility and decent behavior from those we have exalted to high positions and given vast quantities of power and wealth. And the truly pernicious element in the abdication of all standards is the cynical, ultra-sophisticated view that standards of any kind are hopelessly corny and passé. How can we judge others, they tell us, when we ourselves are so flawed, and so susceptible to the same temptations? And if these urges are within us all, how can we ever condemn them as “wrong?” How many times have we been told that Tiger just happened to get caught, and that any guy would do the same thing he did?

But Phil Mickleson didn’t. And Jamie Moyer didn’t. And Mike Piazza didn’t. And a million other athletes and politicians and businessmen did NOT lie, or cheat on their wives, or take bribes or defraud people. None of them would claim to be without sin or without temptation, yet somehow they managed to resist the urge to satisfy their narcissistic wants by hurting everyone around them. Somehow, most people remember there is a difference between right and wrong, and that trying to do the right thing is worth the effort, even if we sometimes fail.

To the tragically sophisticated, this is just so much religious blather. It is holier-than-thou judgmentalism that will drag us all back to the Spanish Inquisition. Worst of all, it is what they call “hypocrisy” since all of us, at one time or another, will fail to live up to our highest aspirations.

But, of course, what I am suggesting has nothing to do with religion. There are atheists, for example, who feel the same as I do, who have ethical standards and values they try to uphold, and they don’t do it because of God but because they also want to live in a civilized world. And in that world, the jerks and crooks and liars have to go away. They have to go some place where I don’t have to look at them anymore. These days, there are just too many unrehabilitated rehabilitation projects, like Tiger, wandering around soiling my landscape. There are too many Congressmen whose corruption is well known but who remain in Congress. There are too many steroid-enhanced homerun-hitters still playing baseball. There are too many dog-torturers and hit-and-run drivers and celebrity sex tapes.

It’s not just that I’m sick of them, though I certainly am. It’s more important than that. All of us tend to think the path of humanity is on an irreversibly upward path, that civilization will always advance us toward a kinder, safer, happier, wealthier place. Maybe that’s what we want to think, so we do. Unfortunately, it’s not true. History provides plenty of examples of societies that lost sight of their fundamental values and disappeared almost overnight. In fact, that’s how it usually happens. Great civilizations are not destroyed by outside invaders, but by a rotting away from within.