Tiger Woods and the Immorality of Probing for Immorality

Is there a line between private and public when it comes to celebrities such as Tiger Woods?

December 2009

A single-car accident outside his home has put Tiger Woods, quite easily the best golfer of all times, at the receiving end of some much unwanted attention. In the days following the accident it was revealed that he had been having extra-marital affairs with a number of women. The fallout from the disclosure has been monumental. It has been rumoured that his wife was filing for divorce. Several of Woods’ sponsors have “re-evaluated” their sponsorship. A study by the University of California shows that the scandal may have cost shareholders of companies endorsed by Woods up to $12 billion in losses. Fans have expressed disappointment in him and a number of women have come forward to talk about their alleged relationships with the athlete. To the shock of the sporting world, Woods said that he was taking a hiatus from golf. He wanted to “focus on being a better husband, father, and person”.

Athlete and other celebrities, including politicians and movie stars, are often held up as role models. However, notwithstanding their celebrity and other exceptional talent, they too are mere human beings and should not be held to a higher standard of morality. Woods himself has admitted this, stating, “I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect.” The problem arises when we canonize celebrities into sainthood and ascribe to them a moral standard that is higher than we set for ourselves. But unless an individual has publicly expressed his or her moral code, no other person should impose on that individual his or her own moral standards. Some people derive their morality from religion or some other philosophy, while others, based on their experiences and observations, come to their own conclusions on what is right or wrong. It goes without saying that while we live in the same society we do not necessarily subscribe to the same moral code.

As the Tiger Woods debacle has shown, in seeking out and exposing other people’s perceived immorality, other members and institutions within the society, especially the media, expose their own deeper moral failings. They have sought to expose Woods’ indiscretion not out of any underlying concern for those directly involved or affected, but for selfish ends such as media rating and gossip, without regard for the privacy of Woods and his family. Even Woods, who described himself as “a well-known person” and who is no stranger to media attention, said he was “dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means”. He said that his family had been “hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives”. I would be hard-pressed to make better than he did the point that “…no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy.” While he agreed that people will hold divergent views on this, he rightfully noted that “the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one’s own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions”.

Morality is concerned with principles of right and wrong and/or conforming to standards of behaviour and character based on those principles. While these beliefs might be shared by a wide cross-section of the society, they are often individual and vary from person to person. Moral failings are not necessarily crimes. Crimes have victims to whom redress must be made. Sometimes, the victim is society itself and redress is needed to restore the equilibrium agreed upon by the consensus. Society, therefore, has every right to intervene when a crime is committed. On the contrary, the “victim” of a moral failing is often that individual and those immediate members of his family or business and other associates who hold that person in high esteem. Moral failing of the type involving Woods, are the private affairs of those directly affected, notwithstanding his celebrity and large fan base.

The intention here is not to excuse infidelity as acceptable. It often tears families apart and dashes the hopes of children, many of whom might have to live with psychological scars. Further, it threatens the family, which most people agree is the basic and a most fundamental institution of any society. Nonetheless, the efforts of the media and others to expose the moral failings of prominent members of the society could be understandable or even justifiable if the intruder, the media, did so with a view to preserving the social fabric. Such prodding and probing would be welcomed and encouraged if it produced some sort of information that protects the society from some ill such as corrupt politicians, a devastating disease, or warns of the dangers of an impending disaster, such as climate change. However, as media reports often show, people salivate in expectation of the next sex-scandal not because they genuinely care about those involved. They care about the salacious and often “entertaining” information these episodes offer and the money that might be made from the dissemination of such information. Why else will “news” networks line up to bid in a veritable auction as these women try to sell their “stories”, including the most intimate details thereof. Tiger Wood cheating on his wife is not even news to begin with.

Yes, there are many young and impressionable people and an equal number of adults who look up to Woods and other such celebrities as role models. That is a fact of life and a reality for which Woods did not campaign. He is no Barack Obama who came to the people, presented his views and ideas and asked for acceptance, based on this manifesto. Woods’ oath of fidelity was to his wife, his conscience, and maybe his god. The fact that Woods might have disappointed many is no reason to probe into his personal and family affairs. True, young people need role models. But their parents and those with whom they come into contact on a regular basis should be the first role models, not celebrities like Woods who these youths might only know via the television screen.

Mike Wise, in his Washington Post column, says that while Nike will never shoot a commercial to show his (Wise’s) impact on our sport and the world and multiethnic children will never look into a camera lens and say they resemble him, he, Wise, is also Tiger Woods. Wise argues that it’s easy, maybe even natural, to judge Woods’ 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.” Wise admits that while he too is Wood, he has “poked fun at his travails because I use humor as camouflage”. Wise says that it would send him “off the ledge”if the world were to know the details of his electronic communication with other women at one time in his life. Could it then be that many people are quick to point out celebrities’ improprieties and failings in an effort to justify their own flaws? After all, celebrities have money and many of them marry some of the most attractive and influential spouses. They, who seem to have so much going for them, are often unsatisfied in their own marriages and therefore seek solace outside. It can’t be so bad when John Public does it. Right?

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