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On the Trail of a Tiger

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Sometimes our greatest sports heroes have feet of clay. We value their athletic performances, and then we elevate them to iconic status, sometimes against their will. There is no particular reason why a star football or basketball player should also be a model citizen. We, the public, and our designated agents, the electronic and print media, are seemingly incapable of distinguishing a great performer from a great person.

Some stars seek valiantly to protect their privacy. They live behind high walls, protected by guards who shield them from the sunlight. They use the courts to protect their reputations against defamatory aspersions. Others, by comparison, sell their notoriety to the highest bidder, endorsing products that manufacturers deem essential to modern life. Guided by agents, lawyers and a host of advisers, these celebrities take advantage of their fame to reap a fortune in endorsements. Tiger Woods is one of those who traded on his public recognition for the private dollar. Reportedly, he earned a billion dollars in the process.

The history of sports is filled with examples of wayward stars. The greatest baseball player of all time, Babe Ruth, was also one of the greatest rascals of all time. His public shenanigans were both larger than life and true. He lived life to the fullest and the public enjoyed his rapscallion ways. Perhaps it was the time in which he lived and played - the Roaring Twenties -- but nothing would turn the public away. The adoration was genuine. He drank, ate and fornicated until the sun rose the next day while his wife stayed home. He then endorsed cereal, cigarettes, bread, cookies, underwear and soap.

Although politicians have not yet found a way to endorse products while in office, they constantly seek the public spotlight to express their views and gain notice and a place at the microphone. A few of the most sanctimonious have later been caught in compromising positions, flying off to South America to visit a senorita (or senora) or playing footsie in a bathroom stall in the Minneapolis airport. It is their hypocrisy which stings the most.

Over the past few weeks we have witnessed an orgy of public embarrassment rightfully deserved by Tiger Woods. His private life has become front page news. Commentators are thrilled with the fuss. Those who earn their living pandering to the public's insatiable appetite for dirt have had a field day. Others are simply appalled by the revelations of paramours who now number in the double digits.

Few should be surprised that Tiger proved human after all. He was never merely human in his match play on the golf courses of the world. He is the best golfer ever, and he has brought much positive attention to the great game. He was always composed and under control, even when he sank a forty-foot putt, gleamed those pearly whites and shook his fist. Nothing in the recent revelations should diminish his legend as a golfer, but it will.

The ubiquitous media consultants tell Tiger he should follow the well-worn trail to Oprah's couch and bare his soul before the nation. While that might happen, I doubt it. It would be as foreign to Tiger as using a wooden driver on a par 5 hole. More importantly, I don't think it will make a difference. The sharks who have smelled blood will not be deterred from the hunt. Those who now see Tiger as a poser will not change their minds.

Tiger Woods will never be the same. He will be hounded by this scandal for the rest of his public life. The paparazzi will hunt him down with renewed vigor. There will certainly be future embarrassments, all of which he may deserve. He sought to use his notoriety to seek the public's favor. As a result, he waived his right of privacy. He became not just an athlete, but a celebrity, and he traded on that status.

There is a great sadness in all of this. One might wonder why we care about his affairs, but we do. We talk about Tiger as if he was a fallen angel, and he is.

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