Cynics, Polyannas, and Tiger

published February 21, 2010

Optimists are sometimes right but frequently disappointed.  Pessimists are often right and sometimes pleasantly surprised.

From a purely strategic standpoint, it would seem that pessimism is the smarter choice, if it is a choice and not something hardwired genetically.  Add in the foolishness factor: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  Pile on the weight of the anatomical metaphors: the pessimist is tough-minded and steely-eyed, while the optimist is soft-hearted, weak-kneed, and spineless.

Does this explain the reaction many writers had to Tiger Woods’s statement on Friday morning?

Jason Whitlock, Kansas City Star: “Corporations and their brand-name pitchmen earn loyalty with slogans, jingles, commercials and, apparently, no-questions-asked press conferences. Woods wants our faith, but he doesn’t want to earn it… (T)he entire event felt like a well-choreographed Nike campaign.”

Bill Simmons, “I thought it was a borderline train wreck.  It amazed me that Tiger learned little to nothing from the past two months.  The control freak whose life slipped out of control dipped right back into control-freak mode, reading a prepared speech in front of a hand-selected audience of people, taking no questions, talking in clichés and only occasionally seeming human…When the main camera broke down at the nine-minute mark and Tiger had to be shown from the side, I half-expected to see that he was plugged in to the wall.”

Sally Jenkins, Washington Post: “It would have been easier to accept Woods’s confessional at face value if he hadn’t followed such an obviously calculated, familiar media crisis strategy: lead off with heartfelt apology, transition to trumpeting charitable work, and then attack the press.”

John Feinstein, Washington Post: “He tried very hard to sound humbled.  He didn’t pull it off…  Woods, who says he now understands that he’s not above the rules of common decency, is still above answering questions from those who are paid to represent a public that has helped make him a billionaire.”

No risk that any of these folks will be called credulous.  They’re also safe from the accusation that they burnish the Tiger legend in order to curry favor and maintain access to him.  (My question for those who fling this popular charge across the blogosphere: What access?  Who exactly in the media is gaining those supposed insights, presumably gleaned while sharing nachos at Super Bowl parties in the Isleworth compound?)

When the announcement came that Tiger Woods would speak publicly on Friday, there was a rush to condemn the timing, accusing him of trying to upstage the match-play championship hosted by his former sponsor, Accenture.  (I was part of this chorus.)  Mark Steinberg, his IMG agent, said simply – we thought smugly– that the reason for the timing would become obvious on Friday.  And so it did: Tiger was on a scheduled one-week break from in-patient treatment for addiction, having spent the previous forty-five days undergoing a process of self-examination that can be brutal and painful.

He still should have waited until Monday, his critics said.  And he still should have taken questions.

I’m no expert on rehab, but I do know that many treatment centers sharply restrict contact with the outside world.  And that classic twelve-step recovery requires acknowledging the damage you have done to others, seeking forgiveness and trying to make amends.

Taking these points into consideration, it makes sense to me that he spoke to the public when he chose to, at the end of a week of relative freedom and rest from the process.  He understood that the public at large is among those he wronged, and so a public statement was necessary.  He took no questions because he is still working on his problems, because making the statement was enough for now, and because we don’t matter at this point – not the public, not the media, not the sponsors, no one outside the marriage he is hoping to heal by better understanding himself.

What I saw in the statement, unanimated as he may have been, was a person in the midst of a difficult therapeutic process, questioning himself for perhaps the first time in his life.  He indeed is, or has been, a control freak; golf is a game of control, and no one has ever played it with more mental toughness.  He has revealed nothing to the world unless he wanted to reveal it.   But this time, he had an obligation to speak uncomfortable truths about himself to a large audience; of course he delivered them uneasily, and of course he wrote out the speech and rehearsed it – wouldn’t you?

He gave no date for his return to golf; this was a crucial detail not anticipated in our early-week judgments.  His public life will apparently resume when his private life allows it, not when the majors come up on the calendar.  If true, this suggests he may really be putting family first, at last.

He headed back to treatment on Saturday.  His process continues, which is why I cannot join the talking heads on Golf Channel and CBS who hurried to give him an A+ for his efforts.  The only logical grade is an Incomplete; as he said, his real apology is not a matter of words but of actions, and we’ll only know how sincere he was in the years to come.

Unfortunately, in our time, negativity gets attention, and even cautious optimism is labeled as bland or pandering.   Being hard-bitten is not necessarily a sign of courage, and being negative is not necessarily daring.   Sneer at me as an optimist, or a romantic, or what you will.  I know a good reporter must be skeptical, suspending belief until the facts are ascertained.  Tiger Woods, by his past actions, has surely forfeited the benefit of the doubt.  There are reasons to be skeptical, but not, I think, completely dismissive.  Disbelief, too, should be held in abeyance until we see more of how the story turns out.

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