Tiger Woods was talking to me. Actually, he was leaving a voicemail message for his mistress, but thanks to the contemporary ethos of transparency and the wonders of digital technology, I was able to share in this intimate moment. I was sitting in a wi-fi public space. I had my iPhone tuned to a gossipy website. The gossipy website was broadcasting an audio feed of Tiger's message. The message was fed via earbuds right into my head.
At which point it dawned on me that I was part of the problem.
Why did I (and, presumably millions of fellow Americans) feel compelled yesterday to click the link and listen to a semi-panicky Tiger urge his girl to cover her tracks (or, rather, his tracks) by erasing her name from her voicemail greeting? And why did I seem to think that his private hijinks were any of my business?
Just because the guy can hit a three-iron to within three feet of a hole, does it necessarily follow that we all have an inalienable right to dwell on every salacious rumor and detail of his private life? Has our definition of "public figure" become so elastic that a guy who strokes a ball for a living deserves to be scrutinized with the same fervor generally accorded to those who seek our votes for a living?
Tiger Woods is a brilliant athlete who, it turns out, cats around. How shocking. This is what athletes do. A GQ magazine profile, way back in 1997, made it quite clear that he cultivated, shall we say, an eye for the ladies. If his eye remains undimmed, that should be an issue best negotiated between the spouses behind closed doors. Just because we watch him stride the fairway on TV, or even buy the products that he endorses, it hardly follows that he should owe us a play by play of the gap that separates his athletic perfectionism and personal imperfections.
But, you may ask, don't we surely deserve more, given the fact that he has long been such a "role model"? The truth is, the public and the media share much of the responsibility for elevating him to sainthood. We crave heroes in this culture, and we typically assign hero status to jocks.
Tiger himself has never campaigned for himself that way; on the contrary, sports journalists have long complained that he rarely has provided so much as a peek at his private life (in the words of one scribe, Tiger "is the Kim Jong-Il of sports"). Unlike many fallen politicians and hypocritical right-wing preachers, he hasn't publicly stumped for "family values" or the "sanctity of marriage," and he hasn't paraded his wife and kids in ways meant to suggest that his morals are superior to yours.
I suspect that many of us, even during our worst spasms of Tiger-watching, realize all this. Yet still we surf and click. The question is why. Part of the answer, of course, is that we are creatures of our culture. We typically seek to bring down those whom we first build up; it makes us feel better to know that those we designate as Gods actually share our flaws. But I think something else is also going on right now. There is a context for our obsession.
The news is a serious drag. We're marching into a wider war that could easily go bad, the Senate is debating health care reform at a pace that makes a snail look like a Ferrari, the 10 percent jobless rate is merely the tip of a massive iceberg, the health experts and politicians can't even agree about the value of mammograms, the suicide rate for active-duty soldiers has doubled since 2001, the White House can't seem to keep party-crashers from getting within knifing range of the president and veep, the same Catholic Church that covers up the sexual molestation of children is denying communion to Patrick Kennedy in the name of morality, and I may have omitted a few hundred other things.
So why have we been obsessing about Tiger, despite the specious reasons for doing so? Because it's a whole lot more fun than sitting down and trying to figure out whether the government subsidies to the Medicare Advantage plans should be trimmed as part of the proposed health reform overhaul. Those plans are important to seniors, you see, but Medicare itself is roughly three percent of the whole federal budget, so perhaps those Advantage subsidies should be trimmed as part of a $500-billion Medicare savings that could be spread over 10 years, because only then...
Enough! Save us, Tiger. Do something else wrong, and put it in our earbuds.