Tiger Woods’s self-imposed exile from golf is the most stunning–and stunningly rapid–fall from grace in the history of sports. Not since Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from baseball after being dubiously blamed for helping throw the 1919 World Series have we seen such a supersonic transition from heroism to heel. And not since Michael Jordan retired from basketball in 1993, following the murder of his father, has a world-class athlete voluntarily taken himself out of his sport in his prime. Woods’s exile may last three months or it may last three years. But one thing is certain: unlike the twenty-four-hour wall-to-wall sleaze that’s dominated the airwaves since the initial revelations of Woods’s infidelity, this is actual news. After fourteen years of being protected by the press, the Tiger has become carrion. And now, the greatest golfer in history is walking away.
The jury is out on whether Tiger’s retreat makes him more sympathetic. But years from now when we look back at this saga, I hope we remember that Mr. Woods didn’t choose to leave golf until his sponsors left him. Woods announced his departure on December 11. He hadn’t been on a prime time commercial since November 29, three days after the accident, according to the Nielson Company.
The “global consulting company” Accenture dropped him from the homepage of their website. AT&T told him not to call. Gillette said that they could find others to shave for the camera. Every part of Tiger Woods Inc. sized up his moment of desperate need and, instead of offering solidarity and support, ran for cover.
Only a couple of companies decided to stand by Woods. “Tiger has been part of Nike for more than a decade,” the company said in a statement. “He is the best golfer in the world and one of the greatest athletes of his era. We look forward to his return to golf. He and his family have Nike’s full support.” This is hardly surprising. Tiger has made Nike untold treasure–while resisting pressure to say word one about the abhorrent labor practices that define the company’s profit margins.
And Mohammad Juma Bu Amin, the chief executive officer of Golf in Dubai said in a direct statement to Tiger: “We are with you in this difficult time and respect your request for family privacy. As and when you decide to return to the circuit, you can always count on us…. We will be more than delighted to welcome you to Dubai. Consider Dubai your second home.”
So here is Tiger Woods in 2010: no tour, a busted marriage, and alone with nothing but his sweatshops to keep him warm.
This is what we call chickens roosting. The least attractive part of Woods’s persona–including all recent peccadilloes–is his complete absence of conscience when it comes to peddling his billion-dollar brand. As we have been writing for years here at The Nation, Tiger’s partnership with the habitual toxic waste dumpers Chevron and the financial criminals in Dubai deserves far more scrutiny from the sports press than it’s received (none).
Then there was the Philippines. As detailed in the documentary The Golf War, the Filipino government, in conjunction with the military and developers, attempted in the late nineties to remove thousands of peasants from their land, known as Hacienda Looc, to build a golf course. They resisted and three movement leaders ended up dead. Where was Woods? He was brought in by the government to play in an exhibition match and sell golf (not explicitly the course, wink, wink), all for an undisclosed fee. The government called it “The Day of the Tiger” and followed his–assumedly G-rated–actions for twenty-four hours. The Golf War filmmakers show clips of Woods saying to kids, “I want all of you to learn and grow from this experience. Invariably you’re gonna learn life, gonna learn about life because golf is a microcosm of life.” Meanwhile the developers of the course were thrilled at the PR boost his appearance gave their project. Macky Maceda, a vice-president for Fil-Estate Land, Incorporated, the golf course developer in Hacienda Looc, commented, “Oh, I think it’s going to be a great picker upper for the entire country in general. Everybody’s feeling kind of down with this economic crisis. And Tiger is just, I know it, he’s going to give everybody a good feeling.”
Romy Capulong, legal counsel for the Hacienda Looc farmers, had a different take: “Tiger Woods should be barred from entering this country, I think. If I can do something about it–I’ll certainly do that–to bar him from entering this country and propagating golf.”
Tiger, with his global ethnic appeal, has been the sport’s willing avatar, traveling the global south seeking new acres to conquer. The sports media has for years closed ranks around Tiger, defending his right “to not be political.”
But he has been political. It’s the politics of using golf as a weapon to reap untold riches and all the other attendant privileges of fame. It’s the politics of selling yourself as a trailblazing icon, while rolling your eyes at the struggles that made your ascendance possible. It’s the politics of placing your brand above any and all other concerns. It’s the politics of turning a blind eye to your corporate partners’ malfeasance, when there is a buck to be made. This is the real teachable moment of this whole circus: if you front for the worst of the worst, don’t expect anyone to have your back.