On the surface, the Tiger Woods media saga appears to be about the loss of a pristine public image that accompanied the public notoriety and disbelief over the sexual improprieties revealed about one of the globe’s most famous athletes. These revelations suggest not only an individual moral failing but also a public betrayal, since Woods has always symbolized the perfect role model for both the American dream and the legions of young people who aspire to greatness. Couched in the theocratic language of shame, sin and betrayal, Woods’s sexual transgressions and serial infidelities were initially viewed by the dominant media as a fall from grace, a moral transgression that violated the sacred character of both his media-idealized marriage and the public trust. Within a short time, the mainstream media moved away from simply concentrating on the discourse of sexual infidelity and the celebrity spectacle it fueled, and focused on what appeared to be a much more serious concern – the undermining of Woods’s persona as one of the most successful corporate brands in history. For instance, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt opened its December 12 prime time newscast with what appeared to be the real issue in the Woods fiasco. According to Holmes, the blue chip companies that invested in the Woods brand were now weighing the risks and rewards of using him as a corporate sponsor. As one marketing executive put it, “Each one has to weigh out the hit they are taking to their brand’s long-term benefits.”
What is revealed in this shift in emphasis is that Woods’s alleged innocence and clean-cut Disneyfied image was nothing more than a manufactured public image that enabled a few powerful corporations to represent him as the perfect brand for a market-crazed culture whose ultimate commodities are celebrities posing as larger-than-life figures. It seems that beneath Tiger Woods’s all-American image of the dutiful son, the perfect family man and the star athlete with the squeaky-clean image was a fabricated discourse, persona and identity entirely crafted to deliver audiences into the mindless world of celebrity culture, the rapacious cycle of consumption and the production of waste that propels an all-consuming market-driven society. Woods’s moral transgressions did not begin when he violated his wife’s and family’s trust with his serial philandering: they began when he allowed himself to become “just another pitchman selling himself on television and in backlit displays in airport terminals.” Sam Tanenhaus in The New York Times insists that Woods’s scandal is largely about the rise of celebrity culture, but this is too easy. The issue is not that celebrity culture inevitably destroys the people it creates, but that it is simply another face of the corruption, greed and commodification that takes place when a society is governed by an economic system that liberates itself from all financial, political and moral constraints. In a society in which impulses rule, morality collapses and self-absorption and greed become the order of the day. What is worse is that people who exemplify these distorted values, especially celebrity athletes, are held up as role models for young people, unscrupulously directing them to the path of a consumer-based identity.
Woods may be one of the world’s greatest golfers, but there is nothing innocent about the morally vacuous, power-saturated prepackaged universe he inhabited, given how willingly he embraced corporate values while in reality living a secret life completely at odds with the fabricated fantasy that turned him into a marketer’s dream. But the hypocrisy does not end there. After all, Woods knew that if he wanted to make his image as an athletic prodigy pay off, he would not only have to market himself but would also need to become a brand, a saleable commodity, willing to lend his voice and personality to major sponsors such as Gatorade, Nike, AT&T, Accenture, Gillette, Chevron and other blue-chip companies. This meant that he had to play it safe, never say anything controversial, appear to be utterly apolitical, and refrain from associating himself with major social issues. All along, Woods was using his clean-cut cardboard image as a way to hide his other affair – his non-stop tryst with corporate power and the cheap, tarnished, empty social relations and narcissistic commodified values it relentlessly imposes upon the larger society.
According to Business Week, the tragedy of the celebrity endorser scandal is that it detracts from Woods’s image as “wonderfully dull,” an image that “didn’t distract consumers from the products he pitched,” earning him “$100 million annually.” In other words, the more Woods as a person became invisible, the more he obliterated his own personality, the more successful he was as a brand and commodity in selling not just products but a lifestyle, desire and commodity-driven dream machine. A number of commentators in the dominant media have argued that this scandal will deal a significant financial blow to the PGA Tour, especially since Woods has stated on his web site that he will be stepping away from professional golf while he focuses attention on “being a better husband, father, and person.” One wonders, given the perfect fit between the vacuous moral values of the market and Woods’s personal identity, where he will turn to find the strength and insight to enable him to prioritize trust, intimacy, responsibility, loyalty, love and commitment over the shallow market-driven values he has endorsed and embodied for most of his adult life. One could point to Woods’s educational foundation as proof that beneath the celebrity glitter, corporate hawking and marketing spectacle he has championed, there is a more caring and compassionate element of his personality waiting to rescue him from the corporate lifestyle, materialism and narcissism he not only reproduced but relentlessly promoted. The tragedy here is not that Woods’s personal life, corporate contracts and career as a loved professional athlete are now being called into question, but that the American public believed the media hype that he was the perfect role model for young people to emulate in the first place. After all, he never used his talent and fame to focus on real social problems; he never took risks by speaking out against injustice; he never offered to young people what it meant to use one’s fame and talents to exhibit civic and moral courage. He never suggested that wealth and power in America are largely the preserve of a very exclusive club that commands the reins of casino capitalism.
What is more, Tiger Woods even renounced the significance of race as a persistent force for exclusion, exploitation and punishment in American society by claiming that he was not black but “Cablinasian – at once exotic and all-American, ethnically apart but unthreatening.” Maybe he meant he was above race and was one of the true inhabitants of the alleged post-racial society wishfully envisioned by conservatives and liberals alike. Maybe his claim to racial innocence was a justifiable argument for racial fluidity, a call to recognize mixed-race people, or an assertion that who we are or might become is not determined exclusively by race. All of these arguments are reasonable to a degree, but they often overlook the fact that in the United States, even to this day, you are judged first by your color and then by your humanity, if you are recognized at all. Woods could have used his position as a successful person of color to remind the American public that millions of young people of color will never achieve success or celebrity status, not for lack of talent, but because they live in a world that offers them few services, resources and opportunities while condemning too many of them to poverty, unemployment, segregation and often prison. Instead, Woods embraced a position not unlike the one followed by that other notable pitchman, basketball great Michael Jordan, in which in order to preserve his crossover appeal he reproduced the myth that anyone can make it in America, just as long as they believed in Woods’s corporate certified values, consumed the commodities he tirelessly endorsed, and defined their lives through the narrow prisms of privatization, celebrity culture, consumption and unadulterated competition.
Ironically, just as his branding empire collapses, his investment in post-racialism has gone south as his story is rewritten along the stereotyped contours of black men and their alleged rapacious sexual appetites for white women. There is more than voyeurism at work in a cultural apparatus willing to offer up gossip and images of an endless parade of blond women who allegedly had affairs with Woods. What keeps the narrative going is not only the lurid fascination with seeing the mighty fall, but also the revamping of a century-old racist fantasy about the sexual prowess of black men, especially black athletes.
Woods’s career simply mirrored what has now become normalized in a celebrity-obsessed, market-driven society – wealth, success and fame are the highest achievements a human being can achieve to fulfill the American dream. What separates Woods from the reviled bankers, hedge fund managers and bank executives that caused the current financial crisis is that Woods has athletic prowess, embodies a certain small-town innocence and represents a model family man. In actuality, he is the happy face of the same values that this rogue group of financial swindlers endorsed – values that are as hollow as they are illusory. As Chris Hedges puts it, these are the values that leave us “chasing vapors. They urge us toward a life of narcissistic self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good.” In light of Woods’s indiscretions, double life and hypocrisy, what we know now is that he believed less in his own manufactured depoliticized, loving-husband, know-nothing persona of innocence than in the ultimate corporate ethic in which “the ability to lie and manipulate others … is held up as the highest good.” Woods stepped over into the seamy side thinking that his celebrity status and manufactured image of innocence would cancel out the rumors or evidence of whatever indiscretions he committed.
While the pain and suffering Woods has caused his family and friends should not be underestimated, the real tragedy is that he engaged in a Faustian bargain with corporate power in which he used his remarkable athletic talent to sell himself out, and then he simply followed the logic and sold out his family, children and friends. The idea that everything is for sale and that other people only exist to satisfy one’s own interest or exist only to be used for one’s own financial gain does more than poison the social contract, it also makes one blind to any vestige of moral and social responsibility. Woods’s fall from public grace is symptomatic of a culture in which marketing has become the most important pedagogical force in society. Woods’s behavior points to something more than the scandal of serial sexual transgressions. The real scandal in this instance is that Woods’ private life was largely shaped by a consumerist ethic in which everything – including the most intimate social relationships – becomes a commodity meant for instant use, maximum pleasure and gratification without delay. Woods’s actions simply put into high relief the form that social relations take in a society governed by a market-driven ethic in which all attachments are shallow, intimacy and commitment are avoided at all cost and visions of happiness are entirely privatized.
Sadly, Woods not only received accolades and rewards for his Faustian bargain with the tyranny of capital and financial gain, but also became a model for what is best for both America and young people. In the end, the real tragedy of Tiger Woods’s career is that all he really modeled for young people and the larger public was the shallow notion that talent and fame can be sold for a high price in the world of morally vacuous, predatory and civically challenged market strategists. What Woods learned the hard way is that the cruel and morally defunct market-driven ethics that shape the larger society and are embodied in one’s professional career cannot be easily separated or hidden from one’s everyday life. Being an icon for the age of heroic consumption and the widely accepted consumer politics of infantilization did not protect him from falling prey to the very values that so recklessly overtook his life. Whether he can reclaim his own integrity is a question whose implications suggest that he needs to rethink his current private troubles and fall from grace as part of a broader set of social problems. At the very least, he and the rest of the American public must realize that his personal drama is really a reflection of a much larger crisis to reclaim the values, institutions and social responsibility that give meaning to an aspiring democracy. The real tragedy at work in this media-fixated scandal is that the consumer society, values, relations of power and politics that produced the likes of Tiger Woods will not come to an end as he disappears from the cameras and the front pages of the tabloids. Until the social, economic and political conditions generated by global consumer capitalism – along with the formative values and public pedagogy that create and commodify brands like Woods – become the true target of a public outrage, rather than an individual’s illicit behavior, nothing will change. In fact, as Woods passes into the infamous history of iconic commercial sellouts who betrayed their manufactured image, there will be many more celebrity scandals and hungry audiences eager to witness the mighty fall. The only value of such scandals will be to push up the ratings and profits of those privileged classes and corporate elite who support the relentlessly cruel and iniquitous institutions, massive inequality and massive hardships generated by a market society free of all economic, political and ethical constraints, hidden away beyond a culture of glitz, greed, conformity, celebrity and narcissism.
. Burt Helm and Brett Pullery, “Tiger Woods’ Handicap as a Pitchman,” Business Week (December 10, 2009). Online