Saturday, February 20, 2010

Woods Speaks, World Sits in Judgment

At 11 a.m. on Friday morning, Tiger Woods emerged from his self-imposed seclusion and delivered a prepared statement lasting a little more than 13 minutes. Woods admitted that he cheated on his wife by having several extramarital affairs and he apologized for letting down his family, friends, fans and business partners. Then he hugged his mother, greeted several friends/business associates and went back into seclusion without answering any questions from media members. The widely varying responses to what Woods said and how he said it constitute a veritable Rohrshach test of one's attitudes about a host of issues, including celebrity, morality, the role of the media in modern society and race; depending on your life experiences and your perspectives about those matters, you may think that Woods was contrite and humbled or you may think that he was robotic and fake--but the reality is that no one other than Woods truly knows what is going on in his head and even he may not know to what extent he can/will modify his behavior.

Several things struck me about Woods' remarks. First and foremost, he completely eschewed any form of the typical garbage apology that follows the template "If I offended anyone then I am sorry"; instead, Woods boldly declared:

Good morning, and thank you for joining me. Many of you in this room are my friends. Many of you in this room know me. Many of you have cheered for me or you've worked with me or you've supported me.

Now every one of you has good reason to be critical of me. I want to say to each of you, simply and directly, I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in.

After apologizing directly to his wife, his friends and his fans, Woods said:

The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior. I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame.

I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them.

I was wrong. I was foolish.

Regardless of your opinion of Woods, try to objectively consider what he did with those words: he accepted complete responsibility for his actions, stating unequivocally that he was wrong and that no one else is to blame. It is hard to think of another celebrity who has spoken with such clarity in a similar situation; contrast Woods' words with Mark McGwire's whiny excuses ("I wish I had never played during the steroid era") and the similarly disingenuous remarks made by Alex Rodriguez and the rest of MLB's PED cheaters. I am not a connoisseur of celebrity apologies but the only one that I can think of off the top of my head that was as brutally frank as Woods' was Kobe Bryant's statement that he was "furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery."

Woods has been criticized for reading a prepared statement instead of speaking from the heart but that is not fair; Woods knew that whatever he said would be seen and heard around the world and literally might be replayed for decades, so it is understandable that he did not want to speak off the cuff. It is obvious that Woods put a lot of thought into what he said and how he said it, so in that sense his words came from an even deeper place in his soul than they might have if he had simply decided to wing it.

There is every indication that Woods wrote the remarks that he delivered and he was quite frank even if he did not satisfy the salacious appetites of those people who lust to know exactly which rumors about Woods are true and which ones are false. When Woods said, "I thought that I could get away with whatever I wanted to" he delivered a very honest explanation of his actions without excusing his conduct.

The second thing that struck me is that Woods neither looks nor sounds like someone who will be playing world class golf any time soon. I had assumed that when Woods reappeared it would be to announce his return to competition and I seriously doubted that he would miss even one of golf's major events--but during his statement golf seemed to be an afterthought at best.

Along the same lines, the third thing that struck me is that we may be witnessing a watershed moment in golf and/or sports history; so far, the Woods story has created a tabloid feeding frenzy that lacked lasting significance--but if Woods misses one or more majors then this story becomes a permanent part of the history of the sport and could loom very large if Woods fails to break Jack Nicklaus' career record of 18 Grand Slam wins.

The fourth thing that struck me is how so many people are trying to make names for themselves at Woods' expense, the most recent example being the so-called body language expert interviewed by ESPN. I will not give her more publicity by mentioning her name but she took the all-time prize for shameless self promotion after an ESPN host asked her what she thought of Woods' statement: she delivered so many plugs for herself and her book that I had almost forgotten the question by the time she got around to trying to answer it. If this had been the Gong Show then someone would have yanked her off the stage.

It is irrelevant whether or not Woods furrowed his brow, cried, tapped his heart or spoke extemporaneously. The bottom line is that he humbled himself literally in front of the whole world by admitting that he violated his marriage vows--and he apologized repeatedly and without any hesitation or excuses. Woods has committed no crime and he certainly does not owe the public a play by play account of his extramarital affairs; just because other people have bared their soul to Oprah Winfrey does not mean that Woods is required to do so. He is quite correct that moving forward this is a private matter between he and his wife. Business partners, fans and others are free to respect his refusal to supply more details or to choose to not deal with him/not root for him--but they are not "owed" more than an apology and a sincere effort by Woods to conduct himself better in the future. It is possible to live a long, healthy and productive life without knowing exactly who Woods slept with and when he slept with them.

Woods spoke the truth early in his statement when he acknowledged that ultimately he will not be judged by his words but rather by "my behavior over time." In this reality TV age, everyone wants to instantly decide if Woods' statement was a "par," a "birdie" or a "bogey" but that kind of thinking is facile, juvenile and ignorant. All that can be honestly said is that Woods made a good step by issuing an unequivocal apology combined with a pledge to be a better man and that only time will tell if his future actions live up to his lofty words.

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