Columns, Sports

Firn ’16: The unfair demands of a glaring spotlight

By
Sports Columnist

When I tell people Tiger Woods is my favorite athlete, I invariably receive either a quip about the irrelevance of golf or a quibble about Woods’ infamous marital problems. Either way, I seem to be pretty alone in my opinion — Woods currently ranks as the third-most hated athlete in America. Woods’ prominently publicized infidelity represents an unsettling trend in professional sports: As media coverage increases, the spotlight spills into the personal lives of America’s athletes. In the age of social media, barriers between fans and athletes have never been so thin and relationships between them never so unstable. Tiger Woods, Michael Vick and Kobe Bryant are just three examples of once revered stars  who are now reviled due to off-field incidents.

Such is the nature of stardom in the 21st century — athletes in the spotlight expect to have their private lives dissected and scrutinized. As the arrests and scandals mount, fans are shocked and repulsed that their demi-god favorite athletes are in fact human and actually make mistakes. They grumble that certain stars aren’t worthy of fame and fortune. But are these judgments fair? Are athletes really responsible for serving as America’s role models?

In 2009, Tiger Woods was flying high. Having just become the first athlete to ever surpass the $1 billion mark in career earnings, Woods was named “Athlete of the Decade” by the Associated Press after winning 14 major championships in 13 years. Woods was dominating his opponents on the golf course and building a wholesome image of philanthropy, humility and professionalism off the green. But on Nov. 25, 2009, news of Woods’ numerous infidelities leaked to the media. The scandal initiated a downward spiral in Woods’s personal life that culminated in a messy public divorce and a six-month hiatus from professional golf. In a matter of weeks, Woods plummeted from one of America’s most beloved athletes to one of its most despised.

On a personal level, I believe criticism of Woods’ actions is justified. In principle, I believe marital infidelity is wrong. My admiration for Woods is often met with incredulity and accusations that I condone his indiscretion. In truth, I simply don’t care. Tiger Woods is my favorite athlete, not my favorite person. Who am I to judge the personal choices he makes? Woods is in the limelight for his athletic ability, and this is the barometer by which I judge him. Sure, Woods has made some questionable choices in his personal life. Should that fact preclude me from appreciating his awe-inspiring physical and mental dominance within his professional arena? Before the scandal, I was drawn to Woods because of his single-minded drive to be the best. None of that changed after 2009, so why should my appraisal of him? Just as the fact that President Obama smoked some weed in college has no bearing on his ability to lead the nation, Woods’ mistakes are irrelevant to me. Frankly, they’re also none of my business.

Americans decry Woods for his infidelity, but many of them admit to cheating on their own spouses. This hypocrisy is often reconciled with the logic that admittance to the lofty status of the American athletic platform comes with the responsibility to embody virtuous qualities and positively influence young, impressionable minds. But Woods joined the PGA Tour to play golf, not to serve as a role model. Michael Vick plays professional football because he is good at what he does, not because he wants a podium from which to preach. These men deal with the consequences of their own actions. Every day of Vick’s two-year prison sentence for operating an illegal dogfighting ring was deserved. But the legal system is designed so that the punishment fits the crime. Upon his release, Vick’s debt to society had been paid. He has every right to earn a living, no matter the nature of his profession. Vick’s return to competitive football is a testament to his will and devotion, and on the football field, he commands my respect.

Far worse to me are players like Ndomukong Suh, Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez. Whether through dirty play, illegal performance enhancement or constant “me-first” drama, these athletes have tainted their legacies by disrespecting the honor of their respective sports. Sports stars are renowned as athletes, and I evaluate them by their performance and antics in the athletic arena. What weight does my unqualified judgment of their personal choices carry? As a society, we project our ideals and aspirations onto our cultural icons. But this investment doesn’t entitle us to a boundless voyeuristic interest in the private matters of public figures. In the wake of his winless 2013 season, former world No. 1 golfer Rory McIlory was bombarded with questions about whether his relationship with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki was the distraction responsible for his struggles — McIlroy bristled at the suggestion. Speaking to reporters before a tournament in South Korea, McIlroy brusquely stated, “My private life is private and I would like to keep it that way.” Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. But athletes like McIlroy shouldn’t have to answer to fans about their personal choices.

Tiger Woods is my favorite athlete. He is not my role model. He has no responsibility to me, and I have no personal judgments of him. I’m not going to ask Woods for relationship advice anytime soon, but I will watch him tee it up in the environment where he thrives and entertains. By joining the PGA Tour, Tiger accepts the fact that he will be on television when he plays golf. Pundits will dissect the state of his game and debate his place among the upper echelon of golf’s all-time legends. Nowhere in his job description is he required to serve as a role model and submit to the constant probing in his personal life. What Tiger Woods does outside the ropes is his business. My eyes are fixed on the course. Yours should be, too.

 

 

Mike Firn ’16 wishes ESPN would just stick to sports coverage. Contact him at michael_firn@brown.edu. 

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