After Tiger Woods’ win in the Masters recently, there were many reactions and comments, as reactions and comments are now the #1 cash crop in the United States, barely edging out photographs of food. The vast majority of them were positive and supportive of Woods. But there were a few people who were disappointed, who had been rooting for “anybody but Tiger.”
It was the reactions to these reactions that got me feeling disconnected from the culture (even more so than usual). I heard sports commentators saying things like, “How can you root against greatness?” and “I can’t think of any reason for people to root against Tiger.”
Really? Not any reason at all? Well, let’s dig a little deeper than the events of the most recent Masters.
Sports fandom is a weird thing. Fans create deep, passionate relationships with people whom they haven’t met and never will. Sometimes it’s a player for the hometown team, sometimes it’s just a player who happens to be especially charismatic or skillful. You never know how different athletes are going to check the boxes for different fans, except for one thing: no athlete is going to develop a rabid fan following unless he’s really, really good at his sport. Nobody’s lining up to buy the jersey of Buffalo’s second-string offensive guard or Tampa’s bullpen catcher, no matter how charming they are. (Side note: female athletes can have enthusiastic fans without being particularly great at their sport, but we all know what’s going on there.)
And when fans fall in love with their sports heroes, they become willing to cut them all kinds of slack concerning their non-sports activities. In that sense, it’s a lot like a real relationship: You give the benefit of the doubt to your loved ones, because they make you happy, or you hope that they will. If they’re athletes, they make you happy by winning, so you need them to stay on the field, and stay good. And so the fan finds himself making excuses for things that might encumber the performance of his favorite player or otherwise force him out of the game — “I’m sure he didn’t mean to punch that stripper.” Or, “What kind of a world is it where a highly-paid, famous athlete can’t take a handful of pills from a random guy he met in the locker room at Gold’s Gym?”
But there comes a point where the object of your affection reveals himself to be such a jackass that you can’t make excuses for him any more. Tiger Woods reached that point, and then some, for many people after his Thanksgiving 2009 car wreck.
After that, and his divorce and the subsequent publicity, the PR machine broke down, and it became obvious to all that Tiger was not an admirable person. A lot of fans have a high tolerance for that, and there’s a level of expectation that people who occupy the rarefied heights of pro athletics may tend to be entitled jerks. But Tiger took it to Olympian levels of self-indulgent turdacity, proving once again his relentless drive to be at the top of his field.
It was too much for some fans, so a lot of them turned their backs on Tiger. It made it a lot easier because at this same time Tiger became a lot more average at golf, so bandwagon fans felt no need to hang around and make excuses for him; they just hopped off. The people who definitely did support Tiger all the way through his dark years were a) immediate family, b) people who stood to make a lot more money when Tiger was relevant, or c) both (a) and (b).
It was amazing that Tiger came back and won the Masters this year, and he is unquestionably the greatest golfer of his generation, arguably the best of all time. But this talk about his “redemption” in winning the Masters seems more than a little forced to me. Redemption usually involves some kind of come-to-Jesus moment, and maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see anything like that coming out of Tiger Woods.
So when they say, “redemption,” what they mean is, “Tiger got good at golf again, so it’s acceptable for us all to jump back on the bandwagon.” And when they say, “Look at all the support Tiger is getting as he collects his green jacket,” the support they’re talking about is coming from groups (a), (b), and (c) as mentioned above. And I believe down deep in my heart that Tiger would cut any of those people loose if they got in the way of him telling the story about how he’s the greatest.
“How can you root against greatness?” Well, what do you mean by “greatness?” Our definitions are probably not the same.
As I watch Tiger continue to creep toward Jack Nicklaus’ record for majors, my attitude is going to be the same as it was while watching Barry Bonds chase down Hank Aaron’s home run record — “I can’t believe I’m gonna have to look at this friggin’ guy at the top of the record books for all time.” I’ll enjoy watching golf more when he’s not in the running, and when he is in the running — all apologies to everybody who gets rich off Tiger — I will be rooting against “greatness.”