THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

All caught up in the Tiger frenzy

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / December 5, 2009

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FOR THE mere mortals among us, this week’s Tiger Woods media frenzy has been equal parts fascination and flagellation. The details are irresistible: the golf-club-wielding wife; the nervous phone call to the mistress; the girlfriend who showed up on “Tool Academy.’’

And then, every few minutes or so, somebody - Whoopi Goldberg on “The View,’’ your self-righteous buddy on Twitter - chimes in to tell us that we really shouldn’t care.

That’s the moral principle Woods wants us to believe, the mantra of a guy who named his boat “Privacy’’ and whose oblique apology for betraying his family managed the artful feat of suggesting he’s still superior to us. We’re all bad, salacious, low-minded people, Tiger tells us, for being interested in the still-unanswered question of how much he cheated on his wife. We are only allowed to be interested when Tiger is a winner.

And then, we are supposed to be enthralled.

It bespeaks a naivete that Woods can’t possibly really have, more than a decade into his reign as the richest athlete in history. While his empire is largely built on the brilliance of his game, it’s also based on his brand - Tiger as good guy, role model, breaker of barriers. His public image has been carefully honed by an aggressive team of managers, the better to feed a bevy of endorsement deals. He doesn’t sell Wheaties on the grounds of being a serial philanderer.

He’s also smart and savvy enough - or ought to be - to know that TMZ and US Weekly exist. And that a woman who willingly starred on a show called “Tool Academy’’ would probably do a lot to get publicity. And that if she shared his I’m-a-cheater voice mail with his fans, his fans would want to hear it for themselves.

That’s what celebrity is: a rarefied state of being that involves an implicit social contract. You get fawned over, flirted with, overpaid and still showered with freebies, granted entree to VIP events. In return, people you don’t know care about what you do.

It’s not jealousy that drives the masses. It’s because famous people, in their sometimes classless way, are art. They’re players in our national drama, a lens for viewing marriage and temptation and the psychology of sports and the politics of prenups and every other issue Woods’s saga has raised in this week’s sprawling conversation. Tiger Woods is no more real to most of us than Jay Gatsby or Tony Soprano, but we’re interested in what he represents.

Do we need to know the gory details of Woods’s life? Of course not. We also don’t need to watch golf, buy Nike shoes, or covet someone else’s Rolex watch. The celebrity machine is built on desire. It’s just that there is risk involved in being desired: give into the temptations of stardom, and you’re held accountable. US Weekly manages to strike a brilliant balance between adoration and contempt, but it’s not just the stargazing magazines that understand the tradeoff. Barbara Walters, “The View’’ doyenne, knows the ratings power of “fascinating people.’’ That’s why she told Goldberg that, if she doesn’t think Woods was worth talking about, “You might as well go home.’’

Yes, the media can go too far - and when the gossip rags pay people to talk, the details can’t always be trusted. But as celebrity PR guru Ronn Torossian told me, Woods’s wounds this week have been largely self-inflicted. No one was hiding in his bushes when he drove into a fire hydrant in the middle of the night. No one forced him to stonewall and scold and keep his story alive. Give the right confessional interview in the right forum, Torossian says, and Tiger becomes David Letterman. Yesterday’s news. Who happens to be leading in the ratings.

Letterman is a smart man. He knows that people crave a sinner’s heartfelt explanation. He also knows that people are forgiving, attention spans are short, and every celebrity scandal will soon be replaced by another one. Because there will always be another star who thinks he can enjoy the spoils of fame without paying any price.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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