Sometimes the troubles of the rich and famous parallel the struggles of regular Americans. Take for example, Tiger Woods’s DUI arrest over Memorial Day weekend.
At first, it looked like he was passing the buck. “I want the public to know that alcohol was not involved,” the golf great said in a statement. “What happened was an unexpected reaction to prescribed medications. I didn’t realize the mix of medications had affected me so strongly.”
I suspected he was making excuses. After all, his world first fell apart over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2009. A car crash (into a fire hydrant) was involved. Maybe the guy just likes to party over the holidays? It felt like the latest example of a tragic fall from grace. His mug shot was juxtaposed in our minds with memories of a smiling young man who had the world by the tail.
Then, it turned out that Tiger Woods was telling the truth. According to police reports, he scored .000 on breathalyzer tests. He wasn’t drinking, after all.
Now, that’s not to say that it’s okay to get behind the wheel after taking a cocktail of painkillers, but we don’t reserve the same opprobrium for prescription drugs as we do for alcohol.
On the other hand, why draw a sharp distinction between driving under the influence and drunk driving? It is legal to consume alcohol—just not to drive impaired. Likewise, medicine—even prescription medicine—comes with the same caveat.
Plus, it’s not like this is entirely new behavior. Back in 2009, there were rumors that his infamous Thanksgiving incident (the one that led to his divorce) was the result of Ambien. Woods, it should be noted, has had four back surgeries since 2014. In 2008, he had knee surgery, but his problems with painkillers had reportedly been going on since at least 2007. A source told Gerald Posner that “Tiger’s regular dosing of painkillers was ‘potentially a problem’ during those six months because of the addictive nature of his medications. That coincides with Woods tearing his left knee ACL, a common athlete injury, in July 2007. Woods and his advisers decided against surgery then and instead he continued playing and winning on the PGA Tour.”
This incident also dovetails with the growing epidemic of opioid abuse. According to the HHS, since 1999, “the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids—including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin—nearly quadrupled, and over 165,000 people have died from prescription opioid overdoses.”
It is understandable that people who want to play through difficult times in life might lean on drugs to help them keep going. Likewise, a star who is down on his luck—who must endure both emotional loss as well as severe physical pain—might be prone to addiction.
It occurs to me that Tiger Woods might be the rich man’s version of what is happening in the Rust Belt. First, just like someone who had to work a physically grueling working-class job, Tiger’s body is breaking down. And like many working-class Americans, he has lost his family—and is likely longing for the halcyon days that will never come back.
One wonders what might have been had he taken better care of himself when he was younger. As Thomas Boswell noted a few years ago, there was a stark contrast between Jack Nicklaus (whose record 18 major-tournament wins Woods will now likely never surpass) and Tiger Woods. “Nicklaus was still in his physical and golfing prime as he approached 40,” Boswell noted. “He played a limited schedule to keep his body from breaking down. By spending time with his wife and five children, he stayed mentally sharp for majors. Chi Chi Rodriguez called him ‘a legend in his spare time.’”
Again, it may be that Woods simply slipped up and that this was an understandable accident. Or it could be just one more checkpoint on his journey from the mountaintops to the valley. Luckily, he simply fell asleep at the wheel of his car, but he could have killed someone—or himself.
Regardless of this latest incident, Woods’s incident may serve as a cautionary tale to us all. The idea that “Winning takes care of everything” (one of Woods’s Nike ads) is just plain wrong. Equally pernicious is the notion that you should do whatever it takes to win today. Using drugs as a crutch to get through just one more day—to achieve peak performance—is shortsighted.