Hiding out isn’t helping Tiger’s image

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column has been retrieved from our archives. It was originally published December 14, 2009.

Nine words I never thought I’d type: Why couldn’t Tiger be a standup guy like Kobe?

On July 18, 2003, just hours after being charged with sexual assault, Bryant held a news conference at the Staples Center, where he declared his innocence of the charges while admitting his guilt as a man.

"I sit here before you guys, furious at myself, disgusted at myself," he said. " … embarrassed and ashamed for committing adultery."

Actually, his audience was comprised of more than mere sportswriters and cameramen. His wife appeared at his side.

"You’re a piece of my heart," he said. "You’re the air that I breathe. And you’re the strongest person I know. And I’m so sorry for having to put you through this, for having to put our family through this."

These statements were accompanied by the requisite, if Kobe-esque, expressions of remorse and gravity. He gritted his teeth, pursed his lips and held back tears — all of which subjected him to years of merciless, if somewhat deserved torment.

The air that I breathe? Who did this guy think he was kidding?

Did he buy her off?

Was he a rapist, a liar, or merely what he was copping to, a spectacularly unsuccessful philanderer?

Here’s what’s known for sure: the charges were dropped, and Bryant settled a civil suit out of court. There is no additional suggestion that he’s ever been engaged in felonious conduct. Rather, his greatest offense in the years since involves the serial calling of radio stations. I’m also obligated to mention — given the inevitable confusion between victory and virtue — that he’s a far greater ballplayer, and infinitely more respected, than he was six years ago.

This much is certain, too. Kobe Bryant put himself out there to be judged. To say he declined to take questions ignores the considerable risks he did take. Woe unto those who speak after being read their rights. Bryant wasn’t fighting to preserve his image so much as his freedom. Sure, he was protected by his lawyers and by the Lakers. Still, he was willing to be seen, to be lampooned, to let the people appraise him for themselves. For everything that was awkward and mannered in his statement, you got to see something of the real man.

Which brings me to Woods. I thought (or perhaps, hoped) that his first admission (in his second statement, if memory serves) was the beginning of something — if not a real guy, then a more authentic image of one. I feel differently now, for what it’s worth. If you’ve read his by-lined statements, you know he’s not to be believed.

First, four days after Thanksgiving, it was a "one-car" accident that engendered "unfounded and malicious rumors." Then he copped to "transgressions." Now, after nine mistresses have been named, he releases a statement admitting to "infidelity" and saying he’s taking an indefinite hiatus from golf.

You’re supposed to be thrilled about that, his recusal from public life? He wasn’t in the soft drink business. Or the Buick business. Or even the golf business. He was in the image business. Both Woods and Bryant — each of whom turned pro with huge endorsement deals in the summer of ’96 — were seen as heirs to Michael Jordan.

But 12 years after Woods won his first major and more than two weeks after this story broke, you’re still no closer to the basis for his image. Now as then, you have no idea who the real man is. He wants no part of the risk that Kobe Bryant took.

Think about it: every piece of property this guy owns, and many he does not, are being staked out around the clock. But there’s been no Tiger sighting. Strange, right?

Perhaps the events of early Nov. 27 left him with a dental profile like that of Leon Spinks. But everything I know about the economics of stardom and the craft of damage control leads me to believe he’s in rehab. Not for sex, of course. That would do irreparable harm to his cause in commerce. No, I’d bet he’s in for Ambien and Vicodin, which, for all I know, he might have begun abusing when his knee came apart.

Maybe it’s true. Or maybe it’s a device to salvage the remnants of a heroic narrative.

In the meantime, Tiger Woods would do well to realize how the rules have changed. He was still trying to Be Like Mike, when he should’ve been like Kobe.