Tiger still playing by his own rules
Say this much about Tiger: People give a crap. I don't know anyone who didn't watch this morning's speech. There isn't another athlete -- not one -- who could have made the world stop from 11 to 11:15 like Tiger Woods did.
And with that, we're done with the positives. I thought it was a borderline train wreck. It amazes me that Tiger learned little to nothing from the past two months. The control freak whose life slipped out of control dipped right back into control-freak mode, reading a prepared speech in front of a hand-selected audience of people, taking no questions, talking in clichés and only occasionally seeming human. Everything about it seemed staged. Everything. When the main camera broke down at the nine-minute mark and Tiger had to be shown from the side, I half-expected to see that he was plugged in to the wall.
Whatever. I was going to leave it alone. After all, that had to have been a humiliating experience for the guy. But listening to talking heads praise that ludicrous speech pushed me over the edge. Someone actually said, "It came from the heart." It did? Was it C3PO's heart? I thought it seemed like an automated response from Microsoft's new "Cheater's Confession" program.
Let's look at the facts. Tiger cheats on his wife relentlessly and brazenly. She finds out somehow. This leads to him crashing his car in the wee hours of Thanksgiving night. Scandal. Cover-up. More women come out. And more. And more. Tiger disappears like Jimmy Hoffa. Elin stops wearing her ring. Tiger stays hidden. Rumors swirl. By hiding, by not saying anything, Tiger enables every rumor and negative story to gain steam. When he sneaks away to a sex rehab clinic for 45 days, neither Tiger or his representatives acknowledge rumors that he's there. He emerges with a staged jogging photo op; one day later, three other photos of Tiger hitting golf balls, even seeming jovial in one of them, hit the wires. And then, today's prepared remarks. That came from the heart. Just as long as you didn't ask a follow-up question.
When we first saw the room in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., it looked like the set of a "Saturday Night Live" episode: small podium, blue curtain, some heads. The camera panned the crowd, revealing that there apparently had been an emergency casting call for somber white people in blazers. (Why didn't I get an invite? I own a blazer! I could have looked somber!) At 11:01 a.m. ET, Tiger emerged from the back, and I remember thinking that it would have been awesome if he were naked from the waist down.
He spoke for the next 13 and a half minutes. He spoke like this. There was no emotion in his words. His face was blank and empty. Part of me felt bad for him. There were a couple of moments when it seemed like he was trying to shed a tear or have his voice catch just for effect. You get the idea.
People wondered why Tiger opted for a prepared speech instead of the traditional move for disgraced celebrities: sitting down for an interview with "20/20" or "Primetime." You saw why as he was reading his statement. Tiger isn't capable of discussing this stuff with depth or emotion. He can't ad-lib about his feelings and never could. It would have been awful. Like so many other mega-celebrities who became famous too early, it's as though they never properly develop the part of their brain that controls this question: "How can I win over the person I'm talking to right now?" When you become famous too early, you don't have to win over anyone. You just have to exist. You become constantly wary. You start watching what you say around people you don't know. You measure any potential friend or business partner by one question: "What do they want from me?"
That's one reason he ended up in this mess. The other was simpler: Normal rules don't apply to celebrities. This is what bothered me so much about Tiger entering sex rehab. Look, if he really does have a problem, fine. But if Tiger needs rehab, then so does half of the professional sports world. In Miami for the Super Bowl two weekends ago, I saw one famous athlete creeping on more girls than Ronnie, Pauly D and The Situation combined. In the era of cell phones and texts, post-Tiger scandal, you would have thought he'd be more careful. It became the running joke of the weekend. Uh-oh, there he is again! Still creeping! But that's what these guys do. If we learned anything from the Tiger scandal, it's that the celebrity debauchery circuit was much more complex than we ever imagined.
In "A Few Good Men," one of my favorite scenes is when Kevin Bacon is cross-examining the guy from "ER" and asks him why "Code Red" isn't in the rulebook, then Tom Cruise redirects and points out that the mess hall isn't in there, either. Remember that? So how do you know how to get to the mess hall? You just follow the crowd. That's the answer. And that's what Tiger did this decade. He followed the crowd. He just got caught.
Should he have been contrite? Of course. But just be honest about it. My least favorite part of the speech: "But still, I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you. I have made you question who I am and how I could have done the things I did. I'm embarrassed that I have put you in this position. For all that I have done, I am so sorry. I have a lot to atone for."
Big mistake. And plastic. I would have played the "I became a celebrity too soon, I had too many people kissing my butt too soon, I had everything handed to me, I began to think I was invincible and that my behavior had no consequences" card right here. Hell, I even would have compared myself to a child actor or a musician who becomes too famous too young. If the goal of the speech was to make people realize why he did what he did and seem contrite, why not try to connect with us instead of impersonating the little girl from "Small Wonder"? Arrrrrgh.
Tiger was properly hard on himself at times. He said "I'm deeply sorry" and "I'm sorry." He called his behavior "irresponsible and selfish." He called himself "selfish" and "foolish." There was a weird moment when he said that "Elin and I have started the process of discussing the damage caused by my behavior. As Elin pointed out to me, my real apology to her will not come in the form of words. It will come from my behavior over time." Then he said, "However, what we say to each other will remain between the two of us." Well, except for that part about behavior over time.
The best part of the speech: "My behavior has caused considerable worry to my business partners, to everyone involved in my foundation, including my staff, board of directors, sponsors and, most importantly, the young students we reach. Our work is more important than ever. Thirteen years ago, my dad and I envisioned helping young people achieve their dreams through education. This work remains unchanged and will continue to grow. From the Learning Center students in Southern California to the Earl Woods scholars in Washington, D.C., millions of kids have changed their lives and I am dedicated to making sure that continues."
Had I written the speech for him, I would have started there, and actually, I would have started with an anecdote about Tiger's father and the man's expectations for his son. We found out about Tiger through Earl. We grew attached to Tiger through Earl. They had one of the best father/son relationships in sports. Earl was the one person who made Tiger seem like anything other than a golf-ball-cracking cyborg. Like so many others, I wondered if Tiger lost his way after Earl's death, no different than Jordan riding a Double-A bus in 1994. If the goal of this news conference was to get people to feel sorry for him and give him another chance, then Tiger should have gone there. It wouldn't have been disingenuous. It would have been true. And it would have made him seem more human.
Letting down a foundation that he started with his late father wasn't that a bigger deal than letting down Nike or Notah Begay III? Wasn't that the underrated collateral damage here? Only a few athletes have a chance to make a real difference in the community; Tiger has the chance, but his behavior made it more difficult. Anyone can get married, anyone can have kids, anyone can be good at their job. Not everyone can change the lives of tens of thousands of people.
That wasn't the only tactical mistake Tiger made. He went on attack about Thanksgiving night, saying, "Some people have speculated that Elin somehow hurt or attacked me on Thanksgiving night. It angers me that people would fabricate a story like that."
To be fair, Tiger, you crashed your car while leaving your house at 2:30 a.m., you weren't wearing shoes, your neighbors found you asleep on the sidewalk and your wife holding a golf club, the back windows of your cars were smashed in, the accident wasn't reported for 12 hours and then you disappeared for 10 weeks. You never told us what happened. You got terrible advice from your advisors and opened the door for people to imagine crazy scenarios for what happened that night. Don't blame us.
He followed with this: "Elin never hit me that night or any other night. There has never been an episode of domestic violence in our marriage, ever. Elin has shown enormous grace and poise throughout this ordeal. Elin deserves praise, not blame." Let's hope this is true, because if it's not, then nobody will ever be able to trust anything Tiger Woods says again.
The worst part of the speech: "I was unfaithful. I had affairs, I cheated. What I did is not acceptable. And I am the only person to blame. I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have far -- I didn't have to go far to find them. I was wrong, I was foolish. I don't get to play by different rules."
It's hard to explain how insufferable this was live, because on paper, it doesn't seem so bad. But I had a number of problems with it, including
• He came off like Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 2."
• His premise was false. Really famous people DO get to play by different rules. Sorry. We enable them.
• I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me has to rank among the worst excuses in the history of mankind. Christ, Tiger, you're pretending that you put real thought into this? You thought you DESERVED to enjoy all the temptations around you? That's your explanation? Trust me, you should have gone with "I got married too soon, I should have sowed my oats first, I didn't, I'm an ass." Much better. We could relate to that. Instead, you came off like a horny robot. Again, I think you should fire everyone at IMG and start over. They are doing you damage.
Back to the speech. I really liked this part: "It's not what you achieve in life that matters, it's what you overcome. Achievements on the golf course are only part of setting an example. Character and decency are what really count. Parents used to point at me as a role model for their kids. I owe all those families a special apology. I want to say to them that I am truly sorry."
Fantastic. That should have been the second point in his speech, right after he talked about how he felt bad about ruining his charity foundation and letting down his late father, and just before he talked about the damage to his wife and kids. I thought it was fascinating that he apologized to his business partners well before he apologized to those families. Whatever.
Another part I liked: When he begged the paparazzi to leave his wife and kids alone. Sorry, they're always going to bug your wife, Tiger. She married a public figure. But the kids yes. Agreed. Kids should always be off-limits. You could have gone further here. Anyone with kids would have felt bad for you.
Things tailed off near the end when he mentioned being "raised a Buddhist" and "actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years." I would say so. As Tiger said, "Buddhism teaches that a creation of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught." That's an understatement. If this is true, he's one of the worst Buddhists of all time.
He talked about needing more treatment, and about "the importance of looking at my spiritual life and keeping in balance with my professional life." (This sounded like it was written through one of those Russian-to-English translators.) He thought he needed "to regain my balance and be centered, so I can save the things that are most important to me: My marriage and my children." (Better late than never.) He said he planned to return to golf one day, but "I just don't know when that day will be." (That groan you heard came from everyone who couldn't have been more excited about the 2010 Masters, including me.)
By this point, I was making the same face that an airplane passenger makes in the first few seconds after an unclaimed fart. Tiger mercifully ended the proceedings by saying, "Finally there are many people in this room and there are many people at home who believed in me. Today I want to ask for your help. I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again. Thank you."
He seemed to get choked up, but we couldn't tell because the main camera broke and he had been shot from the left side for about four minutes. The conspiracy theorist in me wondered if the broken camera was part of the plan. Either way, I left the speech angry -- not at the speech itself, but by the fact that someone who said, "I was wrong, I was foolish. I don't get to play by different rules" continued to think he could play by different rules.
I want to come clean. Just under my terms. And you can't ask me anything.
In a few weeks, or a few months, Tiger will start hitting golf balls and everything will be fine again. I just want to get there. For now, we apparently have to put up with a few more weeks (and possibly months) of the Tiger Woods Rehabilitation Tour. There will be more rehab, more staged photos, more secrecy and eventually a carefully planned interview with the right person who won't be a threat to ask him anything interesting. Wake me up when he plays a tournament. And if you want to watch a clip of the speech, just watch the first 10 seconds that started with the curtain. It's still there.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller, "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.