Clarence Page

Tiger Woods (c) M. Ryder

Do celebrities hear the irony when they put out news releases that ask us to respect their privacy?

"This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way."

So said Tiger Woods on his website after his single-car accident in November near his home -- as if public curiosity about him could be turned off and on according to when he has golf shirts or a sport drink to sell.

The accident occurred as the tabloid and celebrity media were reporting the first of what has become more than a dozen reported mistresses with whom Woods has allegedly had relations during his marriage. Comedians are having a field day. On a Top Ten list of ways Woods could improve his image, David Letterman suggested, "Release list of women he did not have sex with."

Or, I might add, he could release the shrinking list of sponsors who are sticking with him as a product endorser.

Either way, Letterman's cut had to be particularly unkind, since the late-night CBS star was involved in a sexual scandal of his own not long ago. Spin doctors say Woods could have put his own snafu behind him more quickly had he come clean right away in the way Letterman did in front of TV cameras. Yet, the media and the public seem to care a lot less about Letterman's philandering, perhaps because Woods marketed himself as something Letterman never did, a non-ironically clean-cut and wholesome family man.

We care about Woods product endorsements, for example, because the commercial value of his image benefited mightily from his heartwarming family narrative, beginning with his late father who coached the golf champ to stardom since his pre-school days.

I appreciate the highbrows who complain about all the attention that media pay to Tigergate, but they're outvoted. Celebrity train wrecks create gaper's blocks on the highway of life. If anything intrigues us as much as the sight of celebrities on their way up it is the soap opera of watching them on their way down.

Woods waited two weeks after his accident to release an apology on his Web site that acknowledged his "infidelity." He also announced: "After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person." Indeed, as much as he benefited from his family-man image, he suffers from the damage he has done to that image now.

Public image takes on a life of its own in the world of stardom. As Daniel J. Boorstin observed in his classic 1961 book, "The Image," a celebrity's "name is often worth more than his services." Woods may well recover his marketable image as a sports star by doing what he does best, playing golf whenever he decides to return to the game. Repairing his image may well be a tougher job than saving his marriage.

Woods' woes reminded me of the late pro basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who never worried about a family-man image, either, since he never married. He shocked us anyway by announcing in his second autobiography, "A View from Above," in 1991 that he had sex with 20,000 women. He later admitted that he made up the number, but it did make him the target of jokes and criticism, including from his fellow athletes for fueling prejudices about their sexual behavior.

Yet Tiger could take a lesson from Chamberlain's sentiments in 1999 shortly before his death.

The seven-foot star known widely as "Wilt the Stilt" said he regretted his failure to explain that the sexual climate in the 1960s and '70s, when he had most of his sexual escapades, was much more carefree than in later decades. He also warned "all of you men out there who think that having a thousand different ladies is pretty cool" that he had learned, "having one woman a thousand different times is much more satisfying."

Wise words.

Too bad that Chamberlain was retired by then, deep into what Benjamin Disraeli would call his "anecdotage," a time when athletes have their best stories to tell and their greatest wisdom, yet generate the least interest from the media. That's another funny thing about fame. It often misses the best stories.


© Clarence Page



Tiger's Woeful Tales: Tiger Woods Scandal