okay fine we'll address it

Will Tiger Change Sports Journalism?

This post, this one right here, marks the first time Tiger Woods has been mentioned on The Sports Section since his little “scandal” broke out. Part of this has been organizational: Daily Intel has done such a thorough job of covering the ongoing peccadilloes. But mostly, it’s because we didn’t feel it quite fit here: It strikes us as jarring to see a breakdown of sabermetric principles next to Rachel Uchitel updates. This is probably wrong. But we’re not alone.

The mainstream sports-journalism establishment has reacted with considerable fear to the Tiger Woods story, in the same way political journalists reacted (initially) to the John Edwards story. This is not typically how this works, this business of following the National Enquirer and TMZ for stories. (It took them years to grow accustomed to following blogs for stories; this happened much faster.)

But the change, this time, to many, feels palpable: A story about one of Tiger Woods’s mistresses was on the ESPN BottomLine crawl, for crying out loud. In an industry that has (generally) turned a calculated eye away from the (substantial) personal deficiencies of its superstars, this seems like a sea change: the biggest athlete in the world, splayed out for the gaping masses to see. This is supposed to happen to movie stars; this is supposed to happen to Tom Cruise. The sports world isn’t used to this, not at this level. That it’s happening to the most private of all superstars — a man who refused to comment past a press release about the death of his own father — makes it that much more astounding, and surreal.

But it is this reporter’s belief that this is an isolated incident, a freak occurrence that won’t lead to constant updates on every player’s personal life. For those who fear that the sports pages will turn into a rundown of who’s sleeping with who — and there are sports-media people who fear this — it’s important to remember that the Woods scandal has several unique properties that make it unlikely to set an industry-changing precedent.

1. There was an incident on public record. The National Enquirer stories about other women had been out for a week without gaining much traction in the mainstream press. It wasn’t until Tiger ran his truck into a tree, which required police action and a report, that the sports world picked up the story.

2. Tiger has never said anything about anything. Tiger has been a walking Nike swoosh for more than a decade. Learning something, anything, about him sated the curiosities of even the most stoic ink-stained wretch. Most athletes aren’t so mysterious.

3. Everyone knows Tiger Woods. Damaso Marte could be having threesomes with giraffes, and it wouldn’t cross over like Woods has. A story like this requires the gossip rags to pick it up first, and that doesn’t happen unless the people who buy Star at the Duane Reade checkout line know who the heck they’re talking about. If it’s not Tiger Woods (or similarly high-profile athletes), no one will care. Think about the athletes your grandmother knows the names of: Brett Favre, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, maybe Derek Jeter. Nobody outside those guys is selling mags.

4. The story is self-sustaining. Every day, a new woman sells her story, and it piles on. However many there are, they will keep coming, as long as they keep selling magazines. This is not a onetime incident, a Wade Boggs–Margo Adams deal. There is no danger of running out of stories and story lines. Other athletes might have similar deals, of course, but all told, Tiger’s record on this does seem rather extraordinary. As someone funnier than us put it, “Tiger Woods is the Tiger Woods of cheating on his wife.”

5. Tiger is an industry to himself. If this were an athlete in a team sport, there would be regular beat reporters to whom he would have to talk, at some point. (They’re in the locker room with microphones, after all.) Tiger is so far removed from the rest of earth, bunkered away, in his sport’s off-season, that media availability is a rare, precious commodity with him. He can’t sit down one time with his regular press corps, answer everybody’s questions, and then “get back to work.” This is what A-Rod did with his PED issue this February, and eventually, everyone ran out of questions. Tiger’s very nature, as a guy who gives nothing of himself and betrays no innermost thoughts, as a global brand above the world of give-and-take with the press, makes this approach impossible. The local press cannot ask questions and move on, because there is no local press: With this story, the world is the press. There is literally no answer, no combination of answers, that Tiger can give to make this story pass. He just has to wait. He has no press allies outside of the golf world that relies on him to sustain life. Team-sport athletes do.

A good corollary to this is Kobe Bryant, a man accused of a crime far, far worse than anything Tiger has been accused of. Kobe managed the story because he could blend in — as much as Kobe Bryant can ever blend in — to the story line of the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s just a guy trying to help his team win, and his off-court life became a “distraction.” The sporting press loves to consider itself above distractions: Deep down, they just want to write about the games and the sports too. That’s why they got into this in the first place. Writing about extramarital affairs and felony rape charges is outside of their frame of reference and their comfort zone. When the charges against Kobe were dropped, everyone washed their hands of it, said “Okay, that’s that, then,” and returned to their regularly scheduled programming.

Eventually, they will return to normalcy, and be happy to write about the games again. Tiger Woods will likely never be the same — though expect countless “redemption” and “otherwordly focus” stories come the Masters — but the sports-journalism game, for better or worse, will float lithely back to hagiography and blind hero worship again. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re here.

Will Tiger Change Sports Journalism?