Remember when Tiger Woods was the most hated man in America? Well, he is now on his way to being another example of how a celebrity athlete (and really, any celebrity) can redeem his public image. By my count, he is on step four of a process that includes five key elements.
We are Americans. We have the shortest collective memory on the planet. The main thing any disgraced public figure needs to do is just wait. We will forget. How often do people mention Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal these days? Or Rob Lowe’s hotel room escapades? Or what Kobe Bryant did in that hotel room? Or, or, or. We could list scores of examples.
Woods’ dazzling fall from grace began in December 2009. In pop culture terms, that’s an eon ago. Back then, no one had even heard of the Harlem Shake.
I’m sorry, the what?
2. The love of a good woman
This is a standard device in the movies, especially Westerns, and it works in real life, too. If you want to transform the outlaw gunslinger into an accepted member of the community, you give him a respectable love interest.
John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is a classic example. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) recently escaped from prison and seeks revenge. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a prostitute driven out of town, but Ford manipulates her character masterfully. Another character gives birth to a child, and there’s a much-discussed scene that has Dallas holding the newborn baby while all of the men dote on the child and completely change the way they look at Dallas. Ford deftly moves Dallas from one archetype, the Whore, to another, the Mother. She is redeemed. So when Dallas falls in love with Ringo and fights for him, it redeems Ringo. He must be good deep down if this good woman loves him, right?
Lindsey Vonn is Tiger’s Dallas. And she is perfect for the role. She is a successful athlete herself and has (mostly) earned her fame through ability. She is respectable. Yes, she is fond of posing for pictures in bikinis or less, but these days that comes with being the face of a women’s sport (I’m not condoning that, by the way, just observing). She is beautiful, pale skinned and blonde, and competes in a sport that constantly provides her a snowy white backdrop. Good grief, if this were a movie we’d be praising the writer, production designer, and costume designer for their brilliant use of symbolism. Compared to the women with whom Woods cheated on Erin Nordgren, Vonn is downright virginal.
And now, the media are even presenting her as the Mother figure. Exhibit A: the headline, “Lindsey Vonn Plays Mom As She Takes Tiger Woods’ Kids to School,” and text of this New York Daily News article.
See what happened there?
3. Begin to Win
Woods took some post-scandal time off, then his play was shaky for a while. Fast forward. Woods won The Players earlier this month. It doesn’t have quite the marquee, quasi-heroic value of a major tournament, but it’s a high quality win. And Woods has reclaimed his #1 ranking. The days when the media referred to him as “disgraced golfer Tiger Woods” are long gone. He is back to being “world no. 1 Tiger Woods.”
As Stax songwriter/singer William Bell says, “Everybody loves a winner.”
4. Some other jerk paves the high road
Sergio Garcia, you can stop apologizing, because I guarantee you, the Tiger Woods publicity team cannot thank you enough. Garcia made an unequivocally racist joke at some dinner associated with the PGA Championship, suggesting they serve Woods fried chicken. Read about it here.
Garcia’s racism does two wonderful things for Woods. First, it makes Woods a victim, and that automatically evokes sympathy. Especially when the victimization is as ugly as blatant racism (I’m sorry, a fried chicken reference isn’t implicit – Garcia knew what he was saying; it was blatant and intentional). Second, it allows Woods to be magnanimous. Take a look at part of Woods’ response to the remark on Twitter:
“I’m confident that there is real regret that the remark was made. The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it’s long past time to move on and talk about golf.”
Aside from being a deft use of the passive voice (whose real regret is it?), it’s a show of forgiveness, of sorts. Woods and Garcia have been chipping at each other for a long time, but suddenly Woods is on the high road. If Woods demonstrates forgiveness to others, he will earn forgiveness in return. Garcia gave Woods the ideal setup to do just that. Woods suddenly looks like the bigger man in a situation, which didn’t even seem possible three years ago.
The only thing Woods still needs to do is win a post-scandal major. As this article points out, Kobe Bryant provides a nice example for Tiger. Two championships did wonders for Bryant as he moved on from his own scandal, and an equivalent accomplishment will do the same for Woods. He is one major tournament win away from fully recovering his image and turning his infidelity and depravity into a footnote. Woods is back on his game, and it seems only a matter of time before he wins another Masters, U.S. Open, or Open Championship.
I promise you, when he does, Lindsey will be there to embrace him just yards away from the 18th green. If his kids could be there, it would really complete the picture. There will be tears of joy over the full culmination of his comeback. The announcers will play right into the moment and aver that Woods’ troubles are far in the past and he is once again the envy of every young golfer in the world. The media will provide the purifying waters, and Woods will emerge from them, redeemed.
Look, I’m not writing this to attack Tiger Woods the Man. I do not know him personally. We can never know celebrities merely by being familiar with their public images. Maybe he has genuinely changed. Maybe he never deserved to be demonized in the first place. I don’t know, and frankly, don’t care.
But witnessing the fall and rise of Tiger Woods’ image is yet another fascinating study in American celebrity and media, and it says a whole lot more about us than it does about Tiger Woods.