Tiger Tales: Networks Overlook Athletes as Role Models Angle

Media outlets love stories like the current Tiger Woods debacle. It has sex, deceit, money and a fallen hero. It has many angles: the adultery angle that allows psychologists to surmise what drove Woods to cheat on his wife, the business angle of how his “transgressions” will affect his $1 billion earnings, the legal fallout from his car accident – all chock-full of tawdry, tabloid-ready details.

But one angle the mainstream media, particularly the broadcast networks, overlooked was how Woods was looked upon as a role model and what that says about the tendency in American culture to automatically assume a person should be hailed as a hero simply because he can perform admirably on a playing field. 

Woods, known for his clean-cut, family-first image, garnered media attention after questions arose following a car accident he was involved in on Nov. 27. As speculation swirled, rumors of his infidelity came to light and forced the world's top golfer to “offer a profound apology” for letting his family down and to express “deep regret” over his “transgressions.” 

Out of 48 stories from ABC, CBS and NBC about Woods since Nov. 27, 27 referred to Woods' image and corporate endorsements. Only three referred to the flip side of being a corporate spokesman and presenting a specific image to the world – like it or not, the pitchman is also a role model. 

“Why do we hold these men up to be moral beacons?” psychologist Linda Papadopoulis asked during a Dec. 2 CBS “Early Show” discussion. “He hits a ball with a club. I have a real issue with that. He's a sportsman. That's what he is … I think there's a real issue in this society that we kind of tell our young people, look up to these guys because they are the ones you should aspire to be. Yes, in terms of hitting the ball, but, you know, why everything else?”

“Tiger is the role model for, for young kids,” asserted ESPN columnist Rick Reilly on the Dec. 3 “Good Morning America.” “Kids all over the world do exactly what you do,” he claimed to have told the golfer.

NBC's Hoda Kotb also brought up Woods as a role model during a Dec. 3 discussion between with co-host Kathie Lee Gifford and actor Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Green Mile”) after Duncan claimed Woods “doesn't owe us anything” in terms of explaining his behavior.

“What do you think about the fact that he is, in fact, a huge role model for all kinds of kids around the country?” Kotb asked. 

“It's not Tiger Woods' job to raise our kids,” proclaimed Duncan. He also insisted that parents use Woods' current situation “as an example.”

Duncan did not explain what he meant by an “example.” If he meant as an example of consequences for bad behavior, that's not quite the message the mainstream media has been sending. In fact, it would appear based on media accounts that aside from chilly relations in the Woods household (at this writing, reports are that Tiger's wife has moved out), the golfer will escape this scandal largely unscathed if he ponies up enough cash.

“According to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker, Woods recently deposited a seven-figure check into his wife's private account. He is rewriting their prenuptial agreement, increasing the millions she would receive in a divorce,” reported CBS's Randall Pinkston on Dec. 3.

ABC's John Berman reassured “Good Morning America” viewers that Woods would have the means to do so. “His sponsors, those that paid him more than $90 million last year, lined up in the for column,” reported Berman on Dec. 3, the day after Woods apologized for his “transgressions.” “Nike, 'Our relationship remains unchanged.' Gatorade, 'Our partnership continues'”

“He's been player of the year nine times. He's won the most money nine times,” Philadelphia sports columnist Stephen Smith told NBC on Nov. 29. “The man is a flat-out winner, and as long as he steps on a golf course after golf course after golf course winning and continuing to win, his brand will be just fine. That's what it comes down to, winning.”

Smith made his comments before the news of Woods' infidelity broke, but his premise has been echoed by others since.

Janice Min, a former editor at Us Weekly, went so far as to tell NBC's Meredith Vieira that she thought Woods “will be seen as heroic” at the next tournament he plays.

“I think he's going to be fine,” she opined on Dec. 3. “I think even last night, when I was watching some of the male pundits on TV, cable news, they – they've forgiven him. They were talking about, you know, what's going to happen when he comes out to play his first tournament. He'll be seen as heroic.”

MSNBC.com media analyst Steve Adubato agreed with Min. “Short-term, big. Long-term, I say no,” he told NBC on when asked how damaged the Tiger Woods “brand” was after the infidelity allegations came to light.

“I think people can forgive Tiger,” ESPN columnist Rick Reilly claimed to ABC's Diane Sawyer on Dec. 3. “He was pretty spotless from '97 until 2009. Nothing. There was nothing we had on him. There were no scandals. Kept his nose totally clean.” And so, I think people forgive.”

Reilly did note a change in Woods' behavior in the past few years, however. “I have noticed in the last two years that his behavior on the course, and that's the only time we get to see him because he stays out of the spotlight, has gotten worse. You know, I've noticed definitely more club throwing, definite more swearing, knowing he's on TV and swearing.”

Woods' friend, the eminently sensible former NBA star Charles Barkley, has rejected the notion that he should be held up as an example for children. “I'm not a role model,” Barkley famously said. “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids.”

Perhaps Tiger feels the same way. If so, he probably shouldn't have allowed Nike to place him in a well-known ad that featured several children declaring, “I am Tiger Woods.”

Regardless of whether Woods considers himself a role model or not, the fact remains that he is. And until now, that wasn't an especially bad thing. Beyond the mechanics of his swing, Tiger's approach to the game of golf – his hard work, passion, determination and consistent excellence – so long as it was paired with the clean façade, offered kids a great example to emulate. If a kid's hero is going to an athlete, he seemed like a pretty good one.

But uncoupled from that good-guy image, the rest deflates. He's just another coddled superstar who's failed to live up to the gifts he's been given. All that's left to admire are the sheer mechanics of hitting a golf ball.

Duncan insists parents can use Tiger's current situation as “an example” for their children. He's right. This is an example of why athletes do not make the best role models. As we've seen, they operate in a world with different rules, where money and winning trump any norms of good behavior.

It's a fascinating aspect of the Tiger Woods scandal that the mainstream media largely overlooked.