Tiger tanked

First of all, on the scale of epic athletic philandering where do you think the ongoing and possibly bottomless Tiger Woods fiasco rates? Do you think it would have made Stanley Ketchell blush?

Stanley, the ferocious middleweight champion of the world who was none too lovingly known as “the Michigan assassin,” was sipping coffee one October morning in 1910 while sitting in the kitchen of a Conway, Missouri home owned by a certain Walter Dipley. Problem is the lady sharing breakfast with Stanley was Mr. Dipley’s wife. When the gentleman suddenly burst upon the scene, he pronounced his indignation by plugging the Champ with his six-gun and leaving him dead on the kitchen floor.

Reaction was mild. Barely out of his teens, Ketchell was already fabled as a wild fellow. Moreover, the relatively tame Edwardian Age featured much sporting excess both on and off the various fields of play.

Boxing, then in its golden age, provided the best examples. The Crown Prince was Jack Johnson, the incomparable heavyweight champion who was besieged by scandal on three continents. Of course, Jack’s alleged indiscretions were largely framed by the fierce and rampant racism of his times. His gravest offense being that he dared to fight back. Nonetheless, that he was exceedingly reckless in doing so is also beyond dispute. The point here is that as a symbol of controversy on matters of manners and morals Johnson’s notoriety was universal.

That jocks have a de facto license to defy the conventional morality seems to have been an axiom planted early and it has been nourished alternately by the public’s fascination and amusement ever since. To be sure there is outrage. But it invariably dissipates swiftly and is easily rationalized by the engaging notion that in sports not only will boys be boys, but they must be.

So it is that over the years many of sports’ biggest rascals have become not only fan favorites but favored pets of the culture at large. Why should this be surprising in a society where the love for a John F. Kennedy only grows the more that’s learned of his “antics” (for the want of a better word)? Is not what’s good for the president good for a golfer? Would it be reasonable to expect cornerbacks to have more rectitude than heads of state?

It was a certain polite editorial discretion arbitrarily exercised by the mainstream media through much of the 20th century that allowed playboys in most all walks of life to escape their sowing of the wild oats unscathed. The benefits for sportsmen were especially immense, allowing the Babe Ruths of the times -- whose sins were widely perceived but never documented -- to be able to further layer their fame with the fabulous advantage of being considered ‘colorful characters.’ It was the very definition of having your cake and being allowed to eat it too.

The image of the bon vivant charms us. Hank Aaron was the better ballplayer and much the more noble man. But Mickey Mantle will always be more beloved.

It was we of the mainstream media who covered for the rascals. It was the game within the game. But those days are gone; dead as the afternoon editions of big city newspapers. In the brave new 21st century media-world increasingly dominated by internet cowboys and agenda-driven bloggers and radio talk-shows and supermarket tabloids and utterly unregulated cable network television babble there are no restraints, no curbs, no deals, no understandings rooted in a wink and a nod. Those who think they are above the law will discover it is a lawless age. They are no longer protected.

I have little interest in judging Woods. I have neither the facts, nor the stomach for it. The discovery that some fabulously skilled, wealthy, and revered player of some game may actually be an ingrate, cad, or veritable pig neither surprises nor offends me anymore even on the odd occasion when I find it vaguely disappointing because I stopped looking to athletes for ethical guidance about 60 years ago. I dimly recall that as a child I had some level of worship for Lou Gehrig, Christy Mathewson, Knute Rockne, and a couple of others. If they too were part of the con job, I don’t want to know. Not even now!

But having said all that I’m not about to let Tiger get away with some of the calculated evasions that he is cleverly attempting to drape in what I would submit is a rather unwise moral indignation. He needs to recognize that it won’t fly.

He says he’s under no obligation to publically account for personal problems. Sorry old chap, but once you ended up witless and shoeless, drifting in and out of consciousness, with your automobile wrapped around a fire hydrant, and mysterious bruises on your face, at three o’clock in the morning, inspiring a visit from the local police your personal problems became public.

He further bristles at the media as his surrogates bitterly challenge the validity of the story. One such apologist laments what he calls “the salivating wolfhounds who gleefully spiel peep-hole journalism.” As if titillation were the only motive. I can’t speak for the supermarket tabloids, but for the rest of us that’s balderdash. It is a legitimate story and it is big. The coverage should be professionally regulated and those who do the reporting -- and especially the commenting -- should restrain their glee. But it can’t be ignored. Doing so would amount to a cover-up and play deeply into the notion -- too widely held -- that the rich and well-stationed can get away with whatever they dang well please.

Woods himself made everything about himself a story when he so willingly made his godlike presence a billion dollar enterprise in a very total compact with the public. The business of Tiger is Tiger. It can be argued that when you sell yourself body and soul -- as he plainly has, much to his immense profit -- you have no more personal life. You have surrendered it to the almighty dollar in a pact near as binding as the one Faust made with Mephistopheles. Moreover, to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. That notion is not now -- nor has it ever been -- unreasonable.

There has been so much of this miserable stuff lately. Public tolerance for scandal and its purveyors is being tested. How much do we have a right to know? How many rocks do you have a right to throw? Indignation may be getting harder to mount. But so too is trust. Are Woods’ indiscretions merely the inevitable peccadilloes of a dashing young superstar or evidence of something deeper and reprehensible? And who is capable of judging the difference? Is only his suffering wife the victim or has everyone who has contributed cheerfully to his billion dollar empire been cheated too.

At a minimum it’s fair to suggest and for his friends to accept that what is good enough for Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford, Steve Philips and Wade Boggs, Ray Lewis and A-Rod, Eliot Spitzer and David Letterman, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Rick Pitino and the luckless Steve McNair, is doubtless good enough for the Lord of the Links.

No doubt Woods will survive this. He may even cement his legend as a peerless performer by responding to soaring pressure with even more epic golfing works down the road. That would not be surprising given his fabulous talent and near brutal competitive fury. This guy is tough.

On the other hand, he is also quite human. And the losses he has incurred may be incalculable. The pedestal that had been falsely fashioned for him was high. So the fall is great. It is to a new level of public esteem that he now moves. It may still be lofty. But it is unmistakably different.

Woods had it all. He now has less. And what he has lost cannot be regained.