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11.28.09

Who Cares What Tiger Did?

The details of his accident and possible domestic dispute are still rolling in. But does it matter? Conor Friedersdorf makes the fan’s case for ignoring the story.

There is only one kind of professional golf event worth watching: a major tournament where Tiger Woods is vying for victory on the final day. Chasing history at the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship, Mr. Woods isn't playing an 18-hole match so much as giving a clinic on human excellence.

The next time I am watching one of those Sunday afternoon sermons, I'd prefer to be entirely ignorant of what Mr. Woods does off the golf course, excepting his grueling regime of preparation. Alas, I am told by the front page of The New York Times, the cable news networks, Sports Center, the gossip site TMZ, and even my Twitter feed that history’s greatest golfer crashed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant near his driveway this weekend, hit a neighbor’s tree, and wound up lying down on the street as police arrived to investigate.

Except in the most extreme circumstances, athletes shouldn’t be treated as public figures when they are off the court, the field, or the course.

Understand that ignorance would be bliss for me regardless of what actually happened. Should The New York Times' account prove correct—if Mr. Woods got in a minor auto accident that led his wife to break the rear window in an effort to free him from the vehicle—I hardly care, unless his injuries wind up keeping him from an upcoming tournament. Or if TMZ is correct—if the wife accused Mr. Woods of cheating, chased him down the driveway, and bashed the rear window in with a golf club as he fled—I desire to know even less.

Gerald Posner: Tiger’s $100 Million Car Crash Every aficionado knows that sports are worth playing and watching as a simulacrum of life. Contriving various games with sets of rules, and leagues of competitors, we're meant to enjoy the beauty of athletic prowess, to be awed by bodies that can do things ours can't, to experience the suspense of live competition, the thrills of victory, and the lows of defeat—and to learn from the spectacle, all without the consequences of actual battle.

The effect is ruined when real life intrudes, even if only in the mind of the viewer, just as a movie is diminished when an actor's real-life personality is as much a presence as the character he is playing, or a play suffers when a stagehand is heard sneezing behind the scenery during a climactic scene.

Basketball happens to be my favorite game. I've rooted for the Los Angeles Lakers ever since my father sat me beside him as an infant to cheer on Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. There are game-winning shots—Magic's hook against the Celtics, Brian Shaw's banked-in three-pointer against the TrailBlazers, Derek Fisher's heave with less than a second on the clock to beat the Spurs—that caused me to involuntarily leap off the couch, shout aloud with joy, and crash back down, heart pumping, grin plastered upon my face. In exchange for these highs, I suffer the Lakers' losses, but at worst I am slightly grumpy the evening after they are eliminated from the playoffs. Awaking the next day, it hardly matters to my life that another victory will have to await next season.

It is sometimes inevitable that real life intrudes on this bargain, as when Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, an event I hardly knew how to process as a 12-year-old kid who idolized him. Kobe Bryant's rape trial is another event that a Lakers fan couldn't help but have to know about. And could any of us enjoy his on-court performances quite as much during that fateful season?

In contrast, Tiger Woods isn’t retiring, or deathly ill, or accused of a serious crime that could cause him to miss a year of golf, or even send him to jail for life.

We can ignore this story. We should take advantage of that fact!

Oftentimes you'll hear debate about the celebrity of sports figures. "I am not a role model," Charles Barkley famously said. "But you're a public figure," others replied. "Thus all of your behavior is fair game for critics."

What I'd like is to hold athlete-entertainers to account as role models so long as they're on the job. Should Tiger Woods back his golf cart into a lake during a celebrity skins tournament, by all means let’s investigate the story, lament the fall of another athlete who "seemed different than the others," and recalibrate our opinion of the sportsman. The same goes for folks who dope in private to enhance their public performances. Realty demands that Mark McGwire is a fallen hero; his sins bear directly on his supposed heroics.

But goings on inside a gated community that involve the private life of an athlete and his wife? I no more want to know the details than I want to know how often Tiger masturbates, another bit of gossip that would do good traffic on the Internet.

Except in the most extreme circumstances, athletes shouldn't be treated as public figures when they are off the court, the field, or the course. It diminishes what they add to society, irrationally elevating their private lives in ways that do a disservice to them and to us.

So what do I think about Tiger Woods given the latest developments in the news? He's a superb golfer. I hope to see him in the final group during the next major, and that I can think of him as nothing more than an excellent golfer as I watch it.

Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.