Why the Tiger Woods scandal says more about us than it does about him

January 6, 2012

Imagine for a moment that you are editor in chief of your local newspaper. Where do you put the Tiger stories?

It started out as a Crime Blotter item, a suspicious early morning one-car accident. In the end it netted Woods only a $164 fine and up to four points on his driving record.

It's a Sports story, since Woods is the world's most famous athlete, and a sex-and-celebrity story, so surely it belongs on the People page. It's also a Business story because of the impact Tiger's indiscretions will have on his endorsements, and that his absence will have on television ratings, tournament attendance and the sport itself.

About the only thing missing is a Weather tie-in, but by now there can be no debating that it is the perfect storm of a story. It is a tale both familiar (Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Eliot Spitzer) and unique — seldom if ever has the public's perception of a man been so totally at odds with reality.

It cuts across demographics, hitting the celebrity angle for women and the sports angle for men and giving both sides fodder in the ongoing battle of the sexes now being played out anew on an Internet message board near you.

The story resonates for children, who have benefited most from Woods's philanthropy, specifically those who have visited his eponymous learning center in Anaheim, Calif. What are they to make of Woods and his interdisciplinary studies? (A copy of the out-of-print "Get a Grip on Physics" by John Gribbin was found lying behind Tiger's car seat, shards of glass on its cover.)

Is it time to nudge Johnny in the direction of a new hero?

A story like this, of course, ends up on A1, where it has been almost every day since Woods kicked off Black Friday by driving his SUV over a hydrant and into a tree. It has sent New York Post headline writers into borderline-dangerous, 80-point delirium.

But the more you ponder the plots and subplots, the more you begin to realize the saga says more about us than it does about Woods.

Start with the gutter twins of plain-old lurid curiosity, the type that moves tabloids in supermarket checkout lines, and its lowest-common-denominator sidekick, schadenfreude.

Meryl Streep once said in a commencement address, "You have been told that real life is not like college, and you have been correctly informed. Real life is more like high school."

Woods was our Most Likely to Succeed, Biggest Jock and Homecoming King. But his downfall has played out like a John Hughes movie, where the jock turns out to be like the rest of us while the nerds look on with amusement.

We are all, in this film, Anthony Michael Hall.

We are also, on some level, 4 years old again. We love to kick over sandcastles, the more elaborate the better, for the simple reason that it's interesting to watch them fall. (Thus the impetus for season two of "Human Wrecking Balls," Gallagher's timeless watermelon gag and other mondo-destructo pop-culture mush.)

We love to catch a cheat, or a "cheetah," as the Post called Woods, and to bust a myth. Woods was both of these things. His carefully crafted public image has cratered so swiftly and dramatically that his rep for right decision making, trumpeted by the consulting firm Accenture (the first Woods-backer to bail), was immediately exposed as farcical.

What's more, the Tiger affair has changed our concept of happiness itself, recalling every tired but true aphorism along the "Money can't buy happiness" spectrum, starting with, "He who gets everything he wants will soon want nothing he has."

Tiger had millions in the bank, a Swedish-bikini-team wife, a couple of cute kids (2-year-old Sam, 10-month-old Charlie), the adulation of millions, a labradoodle (Yogi) and a border collie (Taz), vacation homes, a yacht — and still it was not enough.

He was, it seems, a lost, lonely man, searching for happiness in all the wrong places. (Or, if you believe men merely seek to dominate other men, and to detonate their biological imperative far and wide, and to conquer the "Over the Top Benedicts" breakfast at Perkins, he was a very happy man. Discuss amongst yourselves.)

Tiger Woods was named athlete of the decade by the Associated Press on Wednesday, and he deserves another award for remaining such an enigma. We still don't know Tiger very well, but it seems likely we will get to know him better soon. Oprah or someone like her will take center stage to broker a second introduction better than the first.

This Tiger will be more man, less comic book hero. He may or may not be married, but he will be flawed and, for the first time, relatable. That's a good thing, after the impenetrable facade built by Tiger and IMG and monetized by so many watch, sports drink and video game makers for the last 13 years.

We like flawed, always have, because even though we have been exposed as rubberneckers and relationship know-it-alls, we are still, more than anything, about forgiveness and second acts. We love renewal, rebirth, a unique fixer-upper opportunity.

Come on back, Tiger. We're dying to meet you.