Shame On You!!!!

By Greg Cote
Updated: February 25, 2010
MIAMI — A week ago today, lives and workdays paused as Tiger Woods parted a curtain, stood behind a lectern and spoke, uninterrupted, for 15 minutes. I found it riveting — staged, yet real; orchestrated, yet raw.

The anticipation, the way we were drawn, reminded me a little of the O.J. Simpson verdict on Oct. 3, 1995, when America also tuned in to the ultimate reality TV: Watching a fallen hero’s fate unfold.

What Woods said, in finally addressing the infidelity scandal that knocked him so hard off his pedestal, surprised me for its blunt, unequivocal contrition. I thought it was an extraordinary mea culpa, as well played as any of Tiger’s best golf shots.

But what soon followed the candor that surprised me was a reaction that shocked me — the media baring fangs in a way that embarrassed my profession. The critics allowed themselves to be obsessed by the forum.

ON HIS TERMS

Woods would have been lauded had he presented the very same message in a traditional news conference, saying the same things, but interrupted. Woods also would have been hailed had the same words verbatim been met by the nodding, doe-gaze of Oprah Winfrey or been uttered under the august umbrella of 60 Minutes.

Instead, Tiger’s solo confessional was met with derision and scorn because he dared to present what he needed to say on his terms. This was no news conference, but it was not merely a perfunctory statement, either.

It was honesty we have never heard from so prominent an athlete.

It was a very private man forcing himself to be very public about something very embarrassing.

I give Woods credit and do not think doubt should be cast on his message by any of the peripheral nonsense the critics focus on. The hand-picked audience, the prepared notes, the hokey blue curtain.

You can believe sex addiction is more excuse than illness. You can think Tiger a dirtbag for the way he put himself ahead of his family and was two-faced to fans. You can wonder if his reference to Buddhism on Friday was just a convenience.

SEVERAL APOLOGIES

But none of that means his apology is false. Even the fact his speaking might have been two months late shouldn’t obscure what he finally did say. There was not the denials or fudging of so many disgraced athletes like Mark McGwire.

Woods said “I’m sorry” plainly and repeatedly to everyone he’d hurt. He said, “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated” — a direct declarative where words more careful or lawyer-shaped might have sufficed. He said, “I have brought this shame on myself.”

He said, “Everyone of you has good reason to be critical of me.” And, “I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior.” He called himself “foolish.”

He said to his supporters in attendance and elsewhere, “I have let you down and I have let down my fans.” He spoke of his past and continuing therapy. He said, “I have made you question who I am.” And, “I am embarrassed that I have put you in this position.”

He said it is “time for me to start living a life of integrity.”

He also went beyond that. He spoke of the mind-set that led to his mess.

“I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply,” he admitted. “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted. I felt I was entitled.”

How many superstars feel that? Most. How many have plainly admitted it? One.

Woods concluded by saying, “I want to ask you to find room in your hearts to one day believe in me again.”

I hope I never become so skeptical and cynical that I can’t meet such words halfway, and at least extend benefit of doubt.

Yet the reaction was largely scoffing, mean-spirited.

Bill Simmons on ESPN.com called Woods’ statement “a borderline train wreck” and interpreted what he said as emotionless, “automated.” Defrocked gasbag Stephen A. Smith called Woods “a punk and a coward” for eschewing a news conference, and found what he said “fake and disingenuous.”

And that was some of the milder vitriol.

What’s funny is the same crowd calling Woods cold or disingenuous would have been the first to doubt his sincerity had there been tears or a pause to hitch his breath.

I’d sooner call fake and disingenuous the many pro athletes whose serial infidelity is as bad or worse than Woods’ was but who still get to hide and present themselves as smiling, autograph-signing imprimaturs of all things good.

Woods couldn’t win here.

For circumventing a news conference he’s the manipulating control freak. But if he had a news conference and chosen not to answer the most intrusive questions, he would have been decried as dodging.

The majority of media — insulted by Woods being in control, angry over the many weeks of silence or simply not wanting to appear soft — was predisposed to blast Woods’ statement as a sham before he ever uttered a word.

Get this straight: No law required that Woods submit to media interrogation as if on trial. He was perfectly entitled to handle it the way he did without the presumption of disingenuousness just because reporters were not there to cross-examine.

The biggest insult in my line of work is to be seen as soft or gullible, but sometimes you need to risk those labels to get to any place close to compassion.

For an iconic athlete of this echelon, especially one who grooms his image so carefully, the public shame alone is the greatest punishment.

He earned that shame by his own damnable actions — and Friday’s contrition happened because he got caught, not turned himself in. But the price has been dear, too.

I’ll hope the best for Tiger Woods from here.

Maybe a little for the golfer to find his greatness again, but mostly for the man who made such a mess of his life to find his good name again.