For most of his career, I'd been largely indifferent to NBA superstar Lebron James. My passion is college basketball, and since Lebron leaped straight from high school to the pros, I never had the opportunity to root for him in Kentucky blue, or curse him if he had, God forbid, put on a Duke uniform.
My opinion of golf phenom Tiger Woods was always a bit more jaundiced. I developed an early man crush on Phil Mickelson, and was continually frustrated with (while being constantly awestruck by) Tiger's mind-meld hold on Lefty -- and on the rest of the PGA tour, for that matter -- during his extraordinary and unparalleled domination of the sport for nearly a decade.
But as Lebron leads his Miami Heat through a brutal playoff finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and as Tiger tries to recapture his magic formula for winning Major tournaments in this week's U.S. Open, I will be enthusiastically cheering both of them on.
Why my change of heart?
Each of these men, after all, made a series of stupid mistakes.
Lebron James branded himself with a scarlet A for arrogance by announcing his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers in what many thought was a callous, disloyal manner; and then by carelessly bragging that by taking "his talents to South Beach," he'd produce a string of NBA championships for the Heat. In the most communitarian of sports -- a game that rewards teamwork over selfish hotdogging -- Lebron emerged as the poster child for Gen Y narcissism, the prototypical me-first face of the Facebook generation.
Tiger Woods' scarlet A was, of course, a bit more true to the original Hawthorne. From his initial domestic-induced car crash, to the perverse scenes of Kardashian-wannabes hiring Gloria Allred to grub their fifteen minutes of sex scandal infamy, Tiger enriched the monologues of the late-night host and comedic stand-up industry for weeks on end.
Both Lebron and Tiger have been mercilessly vilified; their public unfavorability ratings possibly unmatched by any American not named John Edwards.
And that's precisely why I am rooting for them. Indeed, it's cases like Tiger and Lebron that helped motivate me last year to launch my Web site/blog, The Recovering Politician.
The Recovering Politician is dedicated to the proposition that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: that there are second (and third, and fourth...) acts in American lives. Our team of former politicos have demonstrated that political defeat is not an end, but just the beginning of a new journey -- that rebounding from adversity is an essential element of the American Dream. Our most popular writer is Exhibit A: Former Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith spent a year in federal prison for making the stupid mistake of lying to a law enforcement official about a minor election finance violation. Today, he's a popular political science professor at The New School in New York, and his essays at The Recovering Politician, as well as his forthcoming biography, will empower a new generation of public servants to learn from his mistakes and fulfill his dreams of sound American policy.
Our Web site also exposes the mistakes of another set of very human players in our political system: the American media.
Now, I'm not one of those malcontents who complain incessantly about a liberal or mainstream or corporate media conspiracy. With a few notable exceptions, media outlets are rarely driven by ideological agendas. However, since the time of Gutenberg (Johannes, not Steve), the media has been driven -- even animated -- by controversy. As the yellow journalists of the last fin de siècle proved, controversy sells papers. And in the current era of decimated news budgets and intense, instantaneous competition from the often-angry, always-polarizing blogosphere, news editors are further incentivized to publish provocative pieces that will generate the maximum number of hyperlink clicks.
Lebron James and Tiger Woods have emerged as some of the most high profile victims of our ever scandal-voracious, nuance-unfriendly media. Their lives, both on and off the court/course have been picked apart, scrutinized and scandalized by the press' 24/7 insatiable appetite for controversial content. And unlike politicians, whose personal character must be the grist of some scrutiny -- we ask them to protect our public interests and spend our scarce tax dollars -- Woods and James are merely sports figures. We pay them well -- some would say obscenely -- but our money is in consideration for their talent-laden entertainment, not for what they say or do when the competition has ended.
Ultimately, I root for Tiger and Lebron because their public punishment has far exceeded the nature of their crimes. They both certainly merit criticism, but they should never have been considered Public Enemies #1 and #1A.
While many find Tiger's behavior morally reprehensible, unlike nearly every other sex scandal covered by the media, there wasn't even a whiff of a crime committed. Lebron's ignominy is far more troubling to comprehend. Although it seems like he's been in the public eye forever, he's only 27; and his most controversial remarks were made at the age of 25. Who amongst us didn't say a bunch of dumb, careless, arrogant things at that age? Fortunately, most of us don't have an omnipresent media tracking our every utterance and applying Talmudic-like scrutiny to our every word.
So, if you are a Tiger- or Lebron-hater who will passionately root for their humbling embarrassment in this week's major sporting events, let me ask you this: Haven't they been humbled enough?
Maybe you won't join me in hoping for their redemption through victory and the public forgiveness that often incongruently follows. But instead, I ask you to put aside your anger and try to forgive them now. They've been punished sufficiently. Let's let them enjoy what they do best, while we can try to enjoy watching them.
And as a nation, let's resolve to reserve our true hatred for the really bad guys, who plague our society and our world: Al Qaeda, the murderous leaders of Syria and the Sudan, and, of course, the Duke Blue Devils basketball team.
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