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The Images They Weave,

Oh How They Can Deceive

Dec. 22, 2009
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Is it really just four weeks since Tiger Woods went from Ace of Perfection to Bogey Man of Betrayal? His Nov. 27 car crash and admission of infidelity have shattered one of the most profitable images in a culture where great athletes make more money as salesmen than sportsmen. The PGA Tour wonders when its biggest star will return; Woods' corporate partners wonder whether his talent can erase fans' disillusionment. Not being golfers, the Observers find it easy to stay detached.

Frank: I can just picture some eager adviser informing Woods, "On the bright side, the Associated Press named you Athlete of the Decade."

Artie: If there's a trophy, it's something else for Elin to crown him with, ain’a?

Frank: If even 10% of the women selling their stories to tabloids are truthful, Tiger's been a busy guy.

Artie: All that's left to find out is that he got cozy with Sarah Palin, or maybe Susan Boyle during the British Open.

Frank: He has to emerge from his, um, bunker, and the history of big-name disgrace shows the sooner he does, the better.

Artie: There's no end of willing confessors—Oprah, Barbara, Larry, anyone on "60 Minutes."

Frank: And once you bare your soul on TV, the kingmaking begins again. Being a national joke as a philanderer isn't terminal. Bill Clinton makes zillions as a globe-trotting windbag. Eliot Spitzer is a frequent "talking head" on MSNBC. David Letterman ’fessed up on camera and went right on telling jokes.

Artie: Six years ago, Kobe Bryant was facing a rape charge and oblivion. The charge was dropped, he paid up in a civil settlement, gave his wife a diamond boulder, and now he's bigger than ever. Certainly big enough to take six steps, run over Andrew Bogut and still get the crucial call at the Bradley Center last week.

Frank: Woods also is under scrutiny for associating with a Canadian doctor supposedly involved with illegal drugs.

Artie: If that only involved using something to recover from his knee surgery, Tiger will get past that, too.

Frank: Andy Pettitte apologized for using human growth hormone to help with injuries, and he's back on top as a World Series hero. Confession is good for the public image; it's stonewalling that people hate, as Richard Nixon should have known.

Artie: Tiger's feeling economic fallout now—losing his ad deal with Accenture, whatever that is—but he'll still be able to make a ton endorsing golf equipment. Character has nothin' to do with whether you can nail a 7-iron.

Frank: And nailing a 7-iron has nothin' to do with making someone a trustworthy pitchman for Buicks or fancy watches. It's ludicrous, but it must also be lucrative for companies that get athletes to shill for them.

Artie: Which is where Tiger's demand for privacy runs into a public complication.

Frank: I heard Michael Wilbon on ESPN express it well. In doing commercials, Woods was saying, in effect, "Pay attention to me and believe my stellar image when it can make me money, but leave me alone otherwise."

Artie: The image included the gorgeous wife and cute kids. Sure, the family deserves privacy, but then don't bring ’em to the 18th hole to hug you on TV. Then they're props.

Frank: So we were deceived by Tiger's image of domestic bliss. But what advertising image can we ever trust? Recently we learned from Andre Agassi—the "Image Is Everything" guy of the ’90s—that his distinctive, rebellious, way-cool mullet was a weave.

Artie: Even the image selling the idea of image was phony! It's enough to make you think companies are manipulating us, and that athletes join in for the... uh, for the...

Frank: You can say it. For the money. Tiger will make less for a while, but unless he turns into a duffer he'll still be marketable as The Man in golf.

Artie: I think his leave from the Tour will end before the Masters in April. The majors are really laid out for him this year. He's won four times at Augusta already, the U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach, where he won by 15 shots in 2000, and the British Open is at St. Andrews, where he's won twice.

Frank: When he comes to Wisconsin in August for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he may be only a couple away from Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. There's no reason fans can't cheer that; many athletes with lousy personal lives have been revered.

Artie: Even though it didn't get into print much, plenty of people knew Babe Ruth was a hound. Same with Muhammad Ali.

Frank: Mickey Mantle did public penance for being a lush and womanizer and was an even bigger hero when he died. Kirby Puckett's personal life fell apart in his final years, but he's still beloved for his smiling brilliance on the field.

Artie: Steve Garvey, Wade Boggs—they got past their peccadilloes.

Frank: Woods has strong qualities that show in his golf, mainly determination and diligence. But otherwise how does anyone know what kind of person he really is?

Artie: More than most athletes, he's chosen to keep himself behind closed doors.

Frank: Our real heroes should be the people we can see acting decently behind closed doors—parents, siblings, close friends, teachers, caregivers.

Artie: When Tiger gets back to golf, I wonder how this guy who blows his top when a camera clicks will deal with heckling. Like if someone says, "Hey Tiger, don't skank it... I mean shank it!"

Frank: You just got yourself barred from Whistling Straits.

Bowled Over By Mediocrity

Frank: Joy of joys, it's bowl-game season! Including the BCS championship game, there are 34 of 'em.

Artie: Except for Wisconsin vs. Miami on Dec. 29, I'll be doing my laundry.

Frank: Out of 68 bowl teams, 19 have four losses, 16 have five losses and nine are 6-6. The Insight Bowl is the crown jewel of mediocrity, with Minnesota and Iowa State both at .500.

Artie: They weren't very good, and now, playing after a long layoff, they'll be worse. Hype that one, Lee Corso.

Frank: Who cares, as long as ESPN sells commercials, the host cities fill hotel rooms with free-spending fans and the schools get their payouts?

Artie: My big regret is that we fell one second short of BCS chaos.

Frank: If Colt McCoy's out-of-bounds pass floats a bit more and time runs out, Texas doesn't kick a field goal, beat Nebraska and reach the championship game against Alabama.

Artie: And maybe the six fat-cat BCS conferences see an outsider, TCU of the Mountain West, in the title game.

Frank: This year five teams are unbeaten, including Boise State, TCU and Cincinnati. That just screams, “Playoff system!”

Artie: Every other NCAA football division does it, and every other team sport.

Frank: Whatever ranking system you use, put the top eight teams in a playoff. Use existing bowls for it, with the title game in mid-January, or have the first-round games in mid-December.

Artie: But the NCAA won't challenge the BCS conferences—SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 10 and Big East.

Frank: Then let's have the NCAA do something about the travesty at Cincinnati. Brian Kelly coaches the Bearcats to 12-0, then bolts to Notre Dame before "his kids" play in the Sugar Bowl against Florida.

Artie: Just like Rich Rodriguez did in '07, deserting West Virginia before the Fiesta Bowl to take the Michigan job. The NCAA should put a moratorium on hiring coaches until after the bowls. Or else match the transfer rule for athletes; if a coach leaves early, he has to sit out a year.

Frank: Then he can sue the NCAA and explain why he didn't owe his players a full season.

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