Nike will never shoot a commercial to show my impact on my sport and the world; multiethnic children will never look into a camera lens and say they resemble me.
But I am Tiger Woods.
And weeks after the personal life of the world’s most recognizable athlete crumbled, I still cringe every time I hear a voice mail of a desperate man trying to hide the truth from his significant other. The reason I have yet to write about the biggest sports story of the year in these pages is because Woods’s plea to one of his many mistresses brought up old, awful feelings of shame, guilt and humiliation.
I won’t revisit my own crash site in any detail here, but I can say the painful first step of the journey — of seeing myself for who I really was — also began in the worst imaginable way.
I am Tiger Woods, and just as Charles Barkley stood up for him during his weakest moments, I had friends lend support, telling others not to judge.
And while their efforts were appreciated, most of these people turned out to be enablers from the fraternity of arrested development, where boys must be boys because authentic men aren’t allowed to join. I knew I couldn’t change until my circle of “friends” changed.
I am Tiger Woods, and though I have never been an elite athlete, I work in the culture of the elite athlete, where infidelity isn’t merely condoned, it’s strongly encouraged.
It’s a culture where Kurt Thomas’s New York Knicks teammates once told him not to bring his wife for a three-day trip to Miami, “because that’s like bringin’ sand to the beach.”
Joe DiMaggio, pushing 60, once tucked a phone number of a 20ish flight attendant in his pocket, smiling at the sportswriter seated next to him in first class.
“Joe, she’s somebody’s daughter,” protested Ron Bergman, then covering the Oakland A’s. Replied DiMaggio, matter-of-factly: “They’re all somebody’s daughter.”
Joltin’ Joe was also Tiger Woods, who may have to suffer the indignity of losing his family to understand this goes deeper than the culture of blow-dried nothings in beer commercials, deeper than bored, rich alpha males on the road for 270 days a year.
I am Tiger Woods, and saying the greatest golfer on the planet got married too young is a cheap cop-out that misses an essential point: that this is really about a man who has everything and nothing at the same time, a guy medicating with women to fill emotional gaps — the way some people use food, alcohol, drugs, work and golf on television.
The absolute meltdown of a global brand is only extraordinary because of the once cool, calm and oh-so-calculating persona of Tiger. If Rick Pitino, Alex Rodriguez, David Letterman, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford are also Tiger Woods, so are many anonymous people who never played sports, hosted a TV show or ran for office.
And like the potentates and poseurs, they too probably cringe when they hear the voice mail begin, “Hey, it’s Tiger,” and wince when they read the explicit text messages between a panicked guy and one of his other women. Most of all, they thank the heavens they were only found out by the people they hurt — rather than by all seven continents.
I am Tiger Woods, and I understand why the scent of a woman is unbeaten in 2009 and beyond. It is an equal-opportunity addiction, costing manicured, polished stars such as Pitino their coiffed reputations and unknown, dumpy software salesmen their families and jobs.
The truth is, I need help not to be Tiger Woods, a support system helpful to this day. That hearing words such as “dog” or terms such as “commitment issues” only serves to mask real issues. We use them so people such as Tiger Woods never take the time to Google “Attachment Disorder” or “Love Addiction” or look at how their old man treated their mom and what kind of message that sent to a gifted child who would grow up to respect a game more than his wife.
When I hear people say, “Look, it’s not like he’s an alcoholic or a drug addict; sleeping around is not going to kill Tiger,” I cringe again. And think of the most extreme case of infidelity imaginable in sports, in which a beloved, church-going man winds up with a bullet in his head, lying next to the woman who shot him before she took her own life last summer.
Yes, that deranged woman could have been anyone, a warped fan, even his wife. Still, the terrifying truth is Steve McNair was also Tiger Woods.
Three stories piquing prurient interest the past year involved a born-again former Pro Bowl quarterback, a college basketball coach who wore his Catholicism on his lapel, and Tiger, the heir apparent to Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan in the sports world, an icon marketed to be the most wholesome of them all. When all three fell from pedestals — and one of them paid the ultimate price for it — that’s not a dangerous trend of infidelity; that’s disease.
When married billionaires bring breakfast waitresses to the family home in the middle of the day after they’ve already hooked up in a parking lot, that’s not sex; that’s real affliction.
When the world’s most recognizable athlete uses his Blackberry to text a relative kid in Las Vegas about how much he misses her — and she’s but one of a dozen — that’s not sex; that’s sickness.
I am Tiger Woods, and I have poked fun at his travails because I use humor as camouflage, because if I were to deal with the truth, if the world were to know the details of my sad, pathetic electronic communication with other women at one time in my life, the horrific embarrassment would not just send me into seclusion; it would send me off the ledge.
It’s easy — maybe even natural — to judge his actions and ignore what led to them:
Tiger Woods has an emotional void in his life. This void must be huge. For him to be where he is today, this deep emptiness must have consumed him, must be something he has been living with for a long time. Moreover, he has to live with his emptiness while being fully aware that everyone in the world knows just what a manufactured lie his image has been.
Having stared into this void, having known this hollowness, I can neither excoriate the guy nor exonerate him.
I am Tiger Woods, and because of that, I can only hope that he realizes he’s sick and takes steps to get better.