Did Tiger Woods’ second win in a row make you angry? Sad? Did it cause you to make jokes on Twitter, or compel you to tell friends and relatives that you disapprove of adultery? Did Woods’ reascension to the position of top golfer in the world remind you that you think he’s a pathetic sex-glutton? Well, it doesn’t matter: Like him or not, Tiger Woods is once again the top golfer in the world. And the fact that none of us can do anything about it is, depending on how compelled you are by Tiger’s alleged personal transformation, exactly what makes sports’ unique form of celebrity so frustrating or so great.
This sort of immunity from ill will is uncommon in the livelihoods of most famous people. Politicians rely on votes to sustain their careers; movie stars and musicians need people to like them enough to see their movies or buy their albums. When Anthony Weiner sent pictures of his penis to a woman who was not his wife over Twitter, he lost his job because the thing he did was unconscionably dumb and dishonest. Weiner — along with similarly, and more completely, disgraced pols like John Edwards — are now shells of their former selves, if that. (What’s left of John Edwards at this point is more runny yolk.) In entertainment, there’s Mel Gibson, pretty much the patron saint of this kind of thing thanks to his booze-sweaty anti-Semitism jags.
Tiger Woods, on the other hand — that same Tiger Woods who had unhinged droopy Ambien sex with more partners than most men or women would even want, much less will have, and sent text messages to these women that read like free eBooks written by prison inmates — is at the pinnacle of his sport. By the time Woods removes himself from golf, which he will likely do voluntarily, he will at this rate be the greatest golfer who ever lived. Compared with the way we relate to other public figures — conflating our own personal feelings with their job performance — this seems unnatural, even inappropriate.
But of course, it doesn’t matter how you feel about Tiger Woods. Unlike politicians and entertainers, whose ability to dazzle and inspire is derived from channeling or mirroring (however disingenuously) the deeply held values of the people watching them, athletes just have to play the game. The beauty, excitement, whatever it is you’re looking for in sports, comes just from that. We admire most public figures for how they represent humanity; we admire athletes for how they transcend it.
While you might like an athlete more if you find out they’re a good person — charisma can turn a merely above-average athlete into a star — you came across them in the first place because they were good at sports. Meanwhile, it can be immensely frustrating to watch others seemingly forgive a lousy human being because of athletic accomplishment. The model here is Kobe Bryant, who in 2004 was accused of rape, torpedoing what was up until then a fairly popular public image. Looking back from the vantage point of 2013, it’s hard to believe, considering his current ubiquity and popularity (Kobe-heads in #24 jerseys show up even at the Boston Garden), that Bryant was never even acquitted of that accusation by a court: Criminal charges were dropped when the accuser refused to testify, and he settled a civil suit. That’s hardly a bulletproof exoneration. But Kobe’s been so good at basketball for so long that he’s managed to rehabilitate his public image from what was an incredible blow. (That isn’t a moral judgment: It’s an economic one. Kobe’s been back to making big-bucks Nike commercials for quite a while now.) There’s a flip side, of course, in that if you think an athlete or team has gotten a raw deal from the press, it’s reassuring to know that, in the end, none of that matters if they can win. It’s also reassuring to then watch that renaissance play out in real time. (Longtime fans of alleged cowardly losers LeBron James and Peyton Manning got to feel this way about their respective championship triumphs.)
Tiger Woods looks poised to make a Kobe-esque recovery, and it’s not because of anything he did off the golf course. Talk about his stint in sex-addiction rehab or his new relationship, but two and a half years is an awfully short time span in which to assume the transformation of an asshole into a non-asshole. At the same time, it’s also hard to argue that golf is not better with Woods in bloom, battling young-buck Rory McIlroy for dominance and generally chasing history/records/the complete embarrassment of his rivals. There are some legitimate ways in which a high-performing Woods makes the world a better place. Of course, no one is under any obligation to root for Tiger Woods to win golf tournaments. On the whole, it’s probably better for all of us if we collectively turn against him: better for our souls, better for our peace of mind, better for making the emotional lives we lead line up with the ones we’d like to have. But if you care about golf, if you care about sports at all, that negative energy isn’t just hard to summon up — you also know, deep down, that it doesn’t change a thing. Tiger will keep winning, and then it’ll just be you who feels bad.