Friday, February 19, 2010

Tiger By the Tail

Time spent away from asking questions changes a man, or so it would seem.

As a former sports columnist and journalista, there was a time when I would have gladly joined the chorus of irate reporters and columnists who decried the stylized nature of Tiger Woods' apologetic pronunciamento Friday, particularly the part where no questions from the press corps were allowed.

As a general rule, that's a bad thing. But as I watched Woods' staged, scripted and sullen performance, I kept wondering what the Q&A would have given us:

A litany of bimbo eruptions? Quotes from the mother and mother-in-law who were in Woods' Florida manse the night the marital bill came due? A five-part inquiry from some male ESPN yakker that has more to do with ESPN than the First Amendment and the public's right to know.

All the sporting press - and the sponsors and the TV networks - really want to know is when the man is going to start playing golf again. If they can get him to talk about the sneaky doing of the reprehensible, even better.

Just this weekend, two fine sportswriters at the Washington Post, Sally Jenkins and John Feinstein, joined the whinging chorus of scribes and pundits protesting the absence of a true press conference format in Ponte Vedra.

Feinstein, who has made a career writing fond profiles and mostly adoring books about mostly odious college coaches, offered this howler: "Woods ... is still above answering questions from those who are paid to represent a public that has helped make him a billionaire."

That's what those guys do? It's like social work?

Please. I've covered a few golf tournaments and I can tell you that representing the public is pretty far down the scale from getting a parking pass and making sure the leader after the third round gets into the interview room in a timely manner.

In the end, there's this: Tiger Woods didn't have to do this at all.

New York Yankee infielder Alex Rodriguez has lately been redeemed from the yoke of performance-enhancing drugs and a lifestyle that included Madonna while married. How? Not by answering press conference questions but by a bravura showing in the 2009 American League Championship Series and the World Series.

Woods is a golfer. He has all the money a small country will ever need. He may or may not be sincere about trying to put his family back together. He offered up riffs on Buddhism and his foundation work that were truly cringe-worthy.

But I've heard worse apologies - or none at all - from the likes of John Edwards and Newt Gingrich and Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign and, yes, President Bill Clinton and too many others, for cheating on the spouse.

It was a script, but it was a script that included a discussion of his belief that "normal rules did not apply to him" and that money and fame made him believe "I was entitled." When he noted that his wife, Elin, had told him that she would judge him on his actions rather than his words, I thought, well, I've never heard one of these philandering public figures say that before. And I've never heard the motivation question - what were you thinking? - asked at a press conference, either.

We need to get used to the idea that athletes are what they do. Tiger Woods knows that, and so does the professional golf tour and the network TV suits and the Senior Vice Presidents for Marketing from Gillette and Nike. And so does the press.