Tiger Woods and His Sponsors

09:04 Mon 14 Dec 2009
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Upon typing that title, I realized that it sounds quite like a modern fairy tale or children’s story. Of course, if it were a fairy tale, then the faithful sponsors would stick with Tiger as he attempted to slay the foul beasts of public opprobrium and frenzied media—but instead at least one major sponsor, Accenture, is walking away.

The “Tiger Woods scandal” has been a rather large story recently, and that in itself is a sad state of affairs.

In case you’d somehow missed it, the basic gist is that Tiger Woods had some kind of car accident near his home, apparently shortly after allegations of infidelity on his part surfaced in the media, and shortly after this crash many more stories of his allegedly many infidelities appeared. Then he said that he was sorry for the harm his actions had caused, and that he was taking a break from golf for a while.

And this, apparently, is huge news.

I can’t stand golf, personally. I understand a bunch of the reasons why Tiger Woods is so popular, and that he symbolizes a significant shift in the golf world away from its “exclusive” (i.e. racist) past. I also understand that whenever someone challenges the major records in their field of endeavor, and that field of endeavor is popular, it’s newsworthy.

What I have more trouble understanding is why it matters much what kind of a person he is. I mean, of course that matters to him and those who know him, and there’s a certain curiosity that seems natural, but… it certainly doesn’t matter to his sporting achievements, and since he’s a sports star, that seems like what should matter.

I’m oversimplifying, certainly. I myself will happily dislike athletes or teams for reasons that have nothing to do with pure sporting achievement. That doesn’t make those reasons newsworthy, though.

The reason behind Tiger’s personal life being newsworthy has a lot to do with the idea that he’s some kind of role model, something I’ve simply never had any time for as a concept. After all, it seems extraordinarily naive to assume that anyone is perfect, and therefore if you’re going to try to emulate someone, you should know in advance what you’re seeking to emulate.

If you’re an avid golfer, and you seek to emulate Tiger’s technique, what does it matter if he’s a terrible person? You’re going to change your swing mechanics because of that? If you’re not trying to emulate his golf game, what exactly are you doing? Trying to use his example to spur you to success in other endeavors? If so, again, his successes remain, and are still rather impressive—he hasn’t been exposed as a golf cheat.

It should have been clear the entire time that his public image was artificial, manufactured. There’s simply too much money there for that not to be the case. So the story now seems more like “public figure not what his public relations representatives claimed”. Shocker.

Given the fact that all that PR has created what is essentially a mini-industry (for example, television ratings for golf tournaments when Tiger plays in them are apparently about double what they are when he doesn’t play in them), it seems clear that money would play a large role in most parts of the public image. Who knows what his marriage is actually like? None of us, certainly, and none of us are likely to find out, either. That doesn’t “excuse” infidelity, but it seems naive in the extreme to act as if Tiger Woods’ marriage is just like other marriages, and that the agreements between the partners are just like the agreements most people apparently expect to have.

I’m not a fan, but if I were I’d have been more concerned by the stories claiming that Woods is a terrible tipper.

Or, for the matter, by his association with the companies who sponsor him. Accenture, now severing its sponsorship agreement with Woods, is not exactly spotless in its own history. While I don’t bedgrudge athletes the money they earn from sponsorship agreements, it certainly seems bad to sell one’s reputation to antirely for-profit entities. While I’m personally a huge Roger Federer fan, and do think that he’s admirable in many ways, I find his list of sponsors depressing. If, somehow, Federer had no sponsors and tomorrow it came out that a) he’d signed with all of the sponsors on that page and b) he’d been cheating on his wife for years (which I kind of doubt, but one never knows, I guess), I think that the sponsorship thing would disappoint me more. I would also ask myself pointedly why it mattered to me at all, and that his public stance on those companies was significant because it was an emphatic endorsement.

Which is part of the larger issue. When someone who’d been set up as a role model does something, anything, it’s seen as an endorsement. So Woods’ apparent infidelities are seen as Woods endorsing infidelity, I suppose, and many people find this highly objectionable.

For all that I consider the basis of this story unremarkable (and essentially not really newsworthy), the sad thing is that the reactions to the story are interesting for what they reveal about popular culture and conceptions of celebrity, personality, and relationships—which is why I ended up writing this post. I think there’s plenty more material here, in particular the gender dynamics at play, but they’ll have to wait for another time.

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