Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tiger Woods joins the band of elite transgressors

So Tiger Woods has finally apologised for his "transgressions", a strangely old-fashioned word to use, as if Woods is still trying to distance himself from his behaviour.
At least he has come clean – to an extent. The damage limitation has begun. But is it too late?

The answer is almost certainly no, at least with the public. His wife, Elin, may be less willing to forgive Woods in the long run, but most sports fans have a history of shrugging and moving on.
You might get piety on the religious airwaves, but the sports channels tend to run on testosterone.

In a statement on Wednesday Woods said: “I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect.”

This confession has outraged some. The “Tiger Woods is God” website has been running for more than 10 years, but has now decided to disband. The heading “The First Church of Tiger Woods” has been changed to the “Damnation of Tiger Woods” and describes the fallen golfer as “a serial adulterer and a blatant liar”.

There are those who will empathise with that view and condemn Woods, but history suggests the majority will be prepared to forgive. It is something that America does even more willingly than Britain.

Basketball genius Kobe Bryant was accused of rape and made a tearful public confession, with his wife at his side, admitting to adultery but denying rape. The case was later dropped and despite the scandal Bryant regained several lucrative sponsorship deals, saved his marriage and became a star again.

Woods is an admirer of Bryant, having described his work ethic as “phenomenal” and is aware of how the LA Laker saved his career by fronting up. But is Woods, a desperately (increasingly desperate) private man prepared to emulate Bryant’s apparent public candour?

The playbook is out there. When American chat show host David Letterman was about to be exposed in a blackmail attempt as a man who had philandered, he went on air and said: “Did your weekend just fly by? I mean, I’ll be honest with you folks – right now, I would give anything to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail. I got into the car this morning and the navigation lady wasn’t speaking to me.”

Such frivolity is beyond Woods. He would probably rather taken a nine-iron to his own knees than attempt it. But Letterman then went on to say: “If you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it.” That is a line that Woods can manage. His statement read: “I will strive to be a better person and the husband and father that my family deserves.”

Some will accuse Woods of hypocrisy. He has come clean only now that he has been caught with his pants down. Previously, he had talked about the irresponsibility of “the many false, unfounded and malicious rumours that are currently circulating about my family”.

That was daft. Whether you are John Profumo or David Letterman it is always best to tell a quantity of the truth, however limited, rather than thrash about in moral indignation. The public will accept repentance far sooner than hypocrisy.

That is why Bryant has been forgiven by many Americans and why a number of sports stars over the years have also been forgiven their “transgressions.” Boris Becker became known as 'Bonking Boris’ after he was revealed to have had a nuclear cuddle with a model in a broom cupboard.

At the time Becker’s wife was seven months pregnant with their second child. It is hard not to be struck by the comparisons, but Becker is now a popular voice on the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon. You can scarcely get more establishment than that. Once upon a time Becker may have had the scarlet letter branded to his head but not any more.

Back in the Eighties, Ian Botham was alleged to have had a bed-breaking sex romp with Miss Barbados. The rumours and double entendres continued to swirl around England’s greatest all-rounder, but his wife Kathy stayed loyal and Botham became a public hero thanks to his walks for leukaemia.

David Beckham was alleged to have had an affair with Rebecca Loos. For a while it looked as if even 'Golden Balls’ would be tarnished, but he is now more saintly than ever. Even Shane Warne, serial philanderer caught out by an errant text message, is now lapping just about everyone else on the celebrity cricket circuit.

Woods’s fall might seem a long way down right now, but all the evidence is that he will be resurrected. The attitude of his wife will play a part, but so will his own ability to honestly face his demons in public.

The rule seems to be that the public doesn’t mind a philanderer as long as he’s an honest and cheerful philanderer. Nick Faldo was once humiliated when the scorned Brenna Cepelak smashed up his Porsche with a nine-iron. But now he’s Sir Nick Faldo, reeling about like the worst stand-up in show business.

Tiger Woods may have crashed and burned over the previous seven days, but do not bet against his restoration to immortality in the coming years. As soon as Woods wins another major everyone will be talking about Jack Nicklaus’s record again.