Tiger Woods was different, or so he seemed, with his unmatchable talent and carefully burnished image. Unlike some pro athletes, he had welcomed being a role model. He was, it turns out, too good to be true, and his fall from grace calls into question the very idea of sports hero worship.
“No one has approached this level of perfection on and off the playing surface, maybe ever, without a single blot or tarnish,” said Dave Czesniuk, director of operations for Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
“The real story here is the meeting of expectations with reality,” Czesniuk said. “The guy’s a human being and we forget that.”
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Woods’ apology Wednesday for unspecified “transgressions” – coinciding with reports of repeated marital infidelity – was, on one level, only the latest in a long sequence of superstar downfalls.
Michael Phelps was photographed with a marijuana pipe. Marion Jones had her Olympic medals stripped for doping that she long denied. Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez faced dual allegations of steroid use and adultery. And so on.
Woods, however, was unique – a globally recognized brand name that evoked impeccability and historical greatness. His sponsors and handlers, his admiring chroniclers in the media, and especially Woods himself contributed to the image-making.
“The public had become jaded and indifferent – they expected Barry Bonds and Marion Jones and Sammy Sosa to fall,” said psychologist Stanley Teitelbaum, author of “Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols.”
“But no one really expected that of Tiger Woods,” he said. “Now that it happens to him, people are not as indifferent – there’s more disappointment and more disillusionment.”
Steve Elling, senior writer for CBSSports.com, wrote this week that fans and sportswriters, himself included, were gullible in placing Woods on so high a pedestal.
“We have learned by now to invest admiration in public figures with a grain of salt. With Woods, we just ate the whole salt lick,” Elling wrote. “Say it with me: Never, ever again.”
Woods, for all his preoccupation with mastery on the course, had managed throughout his career to be viewed as more than just a golfer – loving son to his parents, civic-minded creator of a foundation serving disadvantaged children, devoted father who said he’d play less golf so he could spend more time with his two young children.
He didn’t embrace social causes, and sometimes there were brief flashes of temper or crudeness. But as far back as 1997, he was on record as welcoming the responsibilities of role model.
“I think it’s an honor to be a role model,” he was quoted as saying in a Business Week article. “If you are given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person’s life in a positive light, and that’s what I want to do. That’s what it’s all about.”
If that was Woods’ goal, Teitelbaum said it had been achieved.
“In terms of a role model, he’s A-one,” the psychologist said. “The fans, and especially kids, are desperate to have role models to look up to. … People have made him the designated sports hero.
“When you’re among the high-flying and adored, your public will give you unconditional love as long as you continue to perform,” Teitelbaum added. “But there’s a responsibility to be that much more careful and that much more transparent and, when something does happen, to deal with it openly.”
The depths of sudden disillusionment with Woods have been almost tangible. According to Zeta Buzz, which tracks millions of blogs and social media posts, online references to Woods had been 91 percent positive before his recent troubles and by Thursday had dropped to 57 percent positive.
The owner of a youth-oriented Internet site called Role Models on the Web said Thursday he’d been inundated with hateful e-mails and phone calls for leaving a flattering entry about Woods on the site.
“Should he be considered a moral role model? No,” said Lamar Brantley of Sarasota, Fla. “But through his foundation, he’s done a lot of good.”
Above the Woods entry on the Web site, Brantley added this update:
“I will leave Tiger up as a role model as I believe it is probably a good topic for discussion in your family. If you do or do not believe him to be a role model of any kind, discuss it with your children.”
Countless parents have been forced into similar conversations in recent years as drug and sex scandals entangled star athletes in numerous sports.
“There’s an important parental role to play with kids,” said Joe Kelly, founder of a national fatherhood group called Dads and Daughters. “You need to make clear that role models are just models – they’re not without flaws, and we will be disappointed by them sometimes, the same way we’re disappointed by our parents sometimes.”
Kelly said he retained a degree of admiration for Woods because of the golfer’s past comments about how much it meant to become a father.
“We have higher responsibilities as fathers, rather than responding to every impulse and desire we might have,” Kelly said. “When it comes to being a father, we have to be the grown-up. When we act like children, the fallout is terrible.”
Some of Woods’ admirers believe he will redeem himself, not only through further golfing excellence but also through a show of character.
“He is distinctive in myriad ways – not only his talent, but his extraordinary level of discipline,” said Dan Doyle, director of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island. “What I think will happen is Tiger will never make this kind of mistake again.”
“The fact that he made what is clearly a big error does not dismiss him as someone who can have a tremendous effect on society and youth in the future,” Doyle added. “People will give him a second chance, and he will make good on that second chance.”