Commentary

The moral(s) to the Tiger story

What have we learned? That we shouldn't look to sports for life lessons anymore.

Originally Published: December 14, 2009
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com

For a few days last week, as more women continued to claim affairs with Tiger Woods and Woods finally announced Friday that he was taking an indefinite leave from golf, Jesper Parnevik became my sportsman of the year. I had never paid much attention to Parnevik before. To me, he was just that odd dude from Sweden who wore goofy hats and loud clothes when he played.

[+] EnlargeWoods
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonHeroes like Tiger Woods don't have to be paradigms of virtue, but they should at least be decent human beings, right?

But Parnevik's immediate willingness to be the only PGA Tour golfer to decry Woods' thundering herd of mistresses left the Swede -- who introduced Elin Nordegren to Woods -- out on a limb all alone. Which gave me a new admiration for him. For days, as women who claimed sexual encounters with Woods kept popping up like some bad Whac-A-Mole game, not one of Woods' peers -- other than Parnevik -- had the guts to go even this far:

"We probably thought he was a better guy than he is," Parnevik said.

The comment hardly seemed like a reach. Woods is, at minimum, a confessed fraud. So why did Parnevik remain unique within golf for so long? And why is he among those who have taken a beating for being sanctimonious (even from flawed messengers such as John "All My Exes Wear Rolexes" Daly, who said Sunday, "I'm not happy with the way some of our players have responded")? The Woods saga isn't one of those murky cases in which a married couple might have had a tacit agreement that it was OK to step out with someone else. Woods' two public apologies ruled that out.

Yet, even Woods' mea culpas haven't slowed the emotionally charged debate about whether outsiders have any "right" to criticize Woods or give him advice on "private" matters or, god forbid, "moralize."

Moralizing has taken on as bad a name during this saga as Woods.

Now, it could be just the scandal fatigue in me talking, but I've long felt that if big-time sports isn't careful, big-time sports is going to stop being a metaphor for much of anything, and this feels like one of those day-the-music-died moments, like it finally happened, like it took something this global and over the top to make it happen.

The tenor of the Woods debate makes me feel as if maybe there's some final break going on, some shaky public consensus is cementing into place, and athletes -- not just disgraced ones such as Woods -- have pretty much completed the migration wished for by many from jocks to entertainers, from old-style moral paradigms some folks still try to put on pedestals to performers who are just extremely good at what they do, same as Mick Jagger or Denzel Washington. Period. End of story.

For a long time, some jocks have argued that they shouldn't be judged on character at all, let alone seen through some moral lens that feels 50 years out of focus. And they have a point.

But even if you agree some correction is necessary -- and I do -- it's fair to wonder whether jocks will regret getting the migration they wished for. Is performance really all that matters? Is the sports world really better off elevating more slapstick from Chad Ochocinco, fewer straight arrows such as Tim Tebow? Is earnestness what's really dragging us all down? Should everyone just lighten up and go grab a sombrero?

Wood's vast ability to monetize his appeal was built on encouraging the belief in his exceptionalism. It made him the world's first billion-dollar athlete. But if it's true that jocks really are no different from the rest of us, does that eventually give us less reason to watch or give a damn about what they do?

The last question is still unsettled. But the so-called moral dilemma over what to do about misbehaving jocks has been answered: For most fans, the answer is nothing. Blanket amnesty hasn't quite set in, but the half-life of the modern sports scandal seems shorter than ever. Sure, people still gawk. But the sheer velocity with which amnesia or "redemption" is achieved now feels unprecedented.

[+] EnlargeJasper Parnevik
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesAmong Tiger's peers, only Jesper Parnevik has been willing to criticize his behavior.

This year, Alex Rodriguez completed the image rehab cycle from disgraced performance-enhancing drugs user to Yankees World Series hero in just seven months. Cast against that, Mark McGwire's five-year, self-imposed exile from baseball presumably because of PED allegations looks so, well … unnecessary. The big lug. What was he thinking?

This was a pretty sleaze-filled year in sports even before the Woods meltdown hit. Steve McNair was shot dead by an extramarital lover who then committed suicide. Louisville coach Rick Pitino, also married with kids, told cops he was being blackmailed by a woman with whom he had quickie sex at a restaurant. Some sexually explicit photos Cleveland outfielder Grady Sizemore took of himself leaked out on Deadspin. A-Rod, then the Dodgers' Manny Ramirez and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz were outed for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played all season with a sexual assault accusation (which he has denied) hanging over his head, same as Kobe Bryant once did. And that's just the short list.

By the time Woods' phony image exploded Nov. 27 and he plaintively asked in one of his slow-to-arrive apologies that people understand he's not superhuman, I'd heard enough. And if that makes me sanctimonious, so be it. I felt fed up, perhaps as Parnevik did. Is it too much to wish Woods -- or anyone, for that matter -- be just a decent human being? Really?

Even if you never bought into the idea of athletes as special, even if you believe the good guys in big-time sports still outnumber the jerks -- and they do -- all those decades in which sports coasted along cast as feel-good morality plays that could teach us something profound about life have never seemed so hackneyed and outdated and silly.

That's the silver lining for Woods as he goes off to contemplate his life. Sponsors such as Accenture and Gillette have pulled back. People care that Woods did wrong. But if you believe some opinion polls taken last week, the vast majority of the public -- an astonishing 91 percent, according to a Marist Poll -- doesn't care enough to avoid buying something Woods is associated with.

Moralizing is so last century.

Just don't take our entertainment away.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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