When celebrity falls, as Tiger Woods did last week in admitting to certain "transgressions," we rush to the scene, eager for the best view. You know the drill. We scour gossip websites in search of lurid new details. We parse the inevitable public apology. (Was he contrite? Should he have been more specific? Did he write it, did his lawyer?) We become a nation of public-relations experts, debating crisis management strategies with friends on Facebook, in checkout lines, on treadmills at the gym. (He should come clean and get out in front of the story. No, he should stonewall until it blows over. Where should he start his rehab campaign? On 60 Minutes? Oprah? Letterman?)
The shattering of a public image has become an event, a topic of speculation much like the Super Bowl. You can get odds online (3 to 1 as recently as Sunday) on whether Woods's wife, Elin Nordegren, will file for divorce before the end of the year in the wake of the golfer's apparent multiple infidelities. In his mea culpa Woods complained that we want to get too personal with him, that "problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions." Well, yes and no. In many ways our reaction to his situation is terribly impersonal.
Sadness? It's an old-fashioned emotion. Maybe we're too jaded to be sad, having been down this road with other public figures so many times before, with Kobe Bryant, with Alex Rodriguez, with David Letterman, with married politicians who hook up with call girls or take off for, ahem, the "Appalachian Trail." There was a time, when this sort of thing was new to us, that we would have thought more about how sad this story is, about Woods's humiliated wife, about the shame that he almost certainly feels, about how hard it will be to shield their two young children from the fallout. But maybe these days we are more likely to skip all that and, instead, tweet the latest Tiger joke: Have you heard about Woods's new movie? It's called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Hydrant.
The public, of course, knows when it is being sold an image, and we truly aren't averse to that. The problem for Woods is that his carefully cultivated aura—committed family man, ruthlessly disciplined, always in total control—has been exposed as clearly false. Now he has to give us something we can accept as closer to the truth. If he wants to regain anything approaching the high regard the public once had for him, he's going to have to open up to us more—and for a man who named his yacht Privacy, that's going to be harder than winning the U.S. Open on a wrecked knee. While Woods's corporate sponsors had not cut their ties with him at week's end, no doubt aware of the American public's capacity for forgiveness, that support is surely conditional on how well he is able to fix what he has broken.
Just a few months ago Woods was visiting President Obama in the White House, but it's hard to imagine another invitation coming anytime soon. The golf community, well-known for its conservative mien and low tolerance for public indiscretion, will be especially slow to forgive. In short, the world's greatest golfer is used to the public's swoon, but for the first time since he joined the PGA Tour he will feel an awkward chill, anger even, and it will have nothing to do with whether people are still buying Nike gear.
Even some of Woods's friends on the Tour want to hear more from him. "I'd like to see him come on TV and just pour it out a little bit, show what's happened a little bit," says Steve Stricker, Woods's playing partner in the Presidents Cup in October. "I don't know if that will ever happen."
Does Woods owe the public further insight into his private life? Of course not, but this is not about what Woods owes us; it is about what he wants from us going forward. Does he want the same thunderous reception from the gallery as he approaches the 18th hole that he has enjoyed? Does he still want to be admired as a pioneering role model, and not just appreciated as a great golfer? If he cares about those things, he will have to earn them back by being honest with us and revealing at least some of his pain. That is his public penance. The public, in a way, is like the spouse who has been cheated on. If you want to repair the relationship, you need to do more than just say you're sorry—you have to let us look you in the eyes and make our own judgments.
Other celebrity athletes may have committed worse offenses, but no one in recent memory has acted in a manner so at odds with his public persona, and thus fallen so far. Even as he was guarding his privacy, Woods encouraged the tableau of the ultimate family man, the beautiful wife there to embrace him and hand him the beautiful baby after winning another major. Woods seemed charmed—he wasn't just the greatest golfer on the planet, he was classy, dignified, admirable. Even if we're not totally shocked that he isn't perfect, we thought his biggest flaws were along the lines of throwing the occasional club or cursing in range of the microphones.