This was written on January 30, 2010 and published in the Times-Delphic on February 1, 2010
Imagine Tiger Woods walking up to the microphone at a press conference before his first major golf tournament since the Thanksgiving Incident. As everyone snaps pictures and waits with bated breath for his first words, he leans back in his chair and smugly looks toward the crowd. His mouth opens; he’s ready to speak.
“I have two goals in my life right now: Win majors and have tons of sex. I’m gonna do them both, and I’m gonna do them both well. If you have a problem, screw off.”
He promptly gets up from his chair, turns and leaves the press conference to either play a round or buy a round, whichever he prefers.
Obviously, the entire world would be in shock. He would lose any endorsements he had left. He would be the lead topic of every TV show in the world—everywhere. People would call him the epitome of what’s wrong in today’s world—a selfish, arrogant, devious man who’s too busy caring for himself to worry about anyone else.
But would it really be that bad?
I know, hold on. Of course it would be bad! You’re taking a man who’s a role model to millions of children and demonizing him! Why would you want one of the iconic athletes of our generation to just turn on everyone and not care? But in all reality, that’s why it wouldn’t be that bad. He would become what we’ve been lacking for years in the sports world: a true villain.
In sports, as in life, there are two universal things that people tend to gravitate toward—underdogs and villains. Every basic Disney movie teaches this. The antagonist must conquer insurmountable odds in order to save the princess, who is being held captive by the most evil person we can imagine. We’ve known the story since we were toddlers. The underdog hero saves the day and beats the seemingly unbeatable villain.
Nowadays, however, real villains are very hard to come by. We try to make villains out of the dominant teams of the time, because we always find ourselves rooting for the underdogs that they consistently squash. The Yankees are patronized because Steinbrenner throws around so much cash that he “buys championships.” Looking at that Yankee squad, however, it’s hard to find a reason to root against them. Jeter and Rivera are stand-up gentlemen, and A-Rod, despite the steroid usage, has the personality of a robot. They’re all under the Yankee PR machine and the only reason they are hated is because they are GOOD.
Same goes with teams like the Lakers, Red Wings, Duke and USC. They are hated not for how they play, but because they win. We make villains out of these teams because we need that simple “hero vs. villain” concept that’s so easy to grasp. But they aren’t true villains.
In order to really understand what I’m getting at, I think it’d be appropriate to take a trip down memory lane and look at what truly constitutes as villainous.
Muhammad Ali – We students don’t remember because we were born in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. But Ali was among the most hated athletes of his generation, due to the combination of his big mouth and America’s racism of the era. Remember, this is a man who called himself “The Greatest” without any reservations. He busted into press conferences and openly berated his opponents. He was one of the biggest critics of the government in a time when war protest was looked at much differently than it is today. And he had no limits. Though we love him now, he was quite the true villain back in the day.
Bobby Knight – Maybe the most fascinating villain out there. I always wondered two things: What kind of kid would want to play for Bobby Knight, and what kind of parents would let their kid play for Bobby Knight? He got great results, but wow. He’s really not a good person. And he doesn’t care. From throwing chairs to physically abusing his players, he has plenty of incidents to support his villainous nature. Then there’s his comment about rape in a 1988 Connie Chung interview that I can’t even bring myself to type. He’s a great example of the “evil genius” persona.
University of Miami football (late ‘80s/early ‘90s) – Called “Thug U” back in the day, this team was pretty insane. They became such a part of mainstream culture that ESPN recently produced a two-hour documentary on these Hurricane teams. Just imagine the most arrogant person you know. Now imagine he’s incredibly good at football. Then imagine 52 of these guys on the same team. You can see how this became a train wreck. You should watch the documentary if you want to know more (it’s a fascinating, well-done piece of filmmaking), but I’ll leave you with this simple stat: In the 1991 Cotton Bowl versus Texas, Miami committed 16 penalties for 202 yards, most of which were personal foul calls on dirty plays and late hits. They still won 46-3 against a team that entered the game 10-1. Cripes.
Other examples include the Bad Boy Pistons, Notre Dame football in the ‘50s and ‘60s (remember, Catholics were looked down upon in those days), Bill Belichick and the “Cheatriots,” Tanya Harding, and, to Packer fans this past season, Brett Favre. Universal villains aren’t created often now. People are too worried about their image and endorsements to let their true personality out to the media.
This is where Tiger comes in. He obviously loves having sex. He obviously loves winning golf tournaments. Why should he stop either? His marriage is over—fine. Some people just aren’t meant to be married. Why should he stop sleeping around now? Imagine his first tournament back in the game if Tiger were to say something similar. Wouldn’t it be must-see TV? You’d have to tune in. You wouldn’t be able to avoid it. And with every birdie he made, a little part of your soul would die.
So, in reality, part of me wants him to stand up and be brash. I want to see him fire shots at some old, fat sports writer, telling him that he’s just jealous because he’s not as good-looking. I want him to be bold and say he’s the best that ever lived. I even want him to pull out the race card whenever possible, just to irritate and annoy everyone while winning tournaments. He’s going to be chastised when he returns; he should make sure that it’s justified.
Unfortunately, that won’t happen. Instead, we’ll have to settle for another decade of Tiger going through the motions with the media. He’ll smile, answer questions, win majors and just have a small asterisk next to his name when his career is done. And eventually the Thanksgiving Incident will fade from memory.
Maybe one day we’ll have another Bobby Knight. Until then, our minds are just left to wonder what could have been—the legendary villain Tiger Woods.