We’ll get to the above January 2010 cover of Golf Digest with its fictitious pairing of Obama and Tiger in just a moment, but first, regarding Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey* that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Rob Long, in the latest Ricochet podcast (behind the members-only paywall, alas), observes:
Here’s what’s interesting about Lance Armstrong: In a way, he’s sort of the sports version of Obama. Because for years, it was considered beyond the pale for people to criticize [Armstrong]. For years he was absolutely protected. He had his goons. In Forbes, a couple of years ago, Rich Karlgaard wrote a piece a couple of years ago saying that Lance Armstrong is a doper, and everybody knows it. And [Armstrong’s] guys, his PR team, his acolytes, his friends, just went after Rich. [Armstrong’s] rapid-response team was huge.
And in a way, the guy reminds me a lot of Obama. Like it was absolutely illegal to criticize him, and in a weirdly sociopathic way, frankly. We are seeing, with Lance Armstrong, a sociopath in action. I mean, the brazen lying has just been amazing for years. Now, whether it’s right or wrong; whether the doping really constitutes cheating, I don’t know. That seems like body chemistry stuff that I really don’t understand. But for whatever reason, it’s illegal, and for whatever reason, it’s hard to detect, but he did it.
And I love the idea that now in this culture, we go to Oprah; that’s the first person you go to. That’s our father-confessor; Oprah can forgive you. Now I’m noticing people saying, ‘is she going to be tough on him, or easy on him?,’ as if that’s the big story, how Oprah’s going to treat him.
But I know people who were such acolytes of [Armstrong] that they would become en-raged if you said that there might have been something funny going on. I hope one day that this happens with the Obama administration; that the fever subsides, the Vicodin leaves the system, and people start to say, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s a crappy president.’
The observation about Armstrong’s PR team circling the wagons sounds very much like an observation Charles P. Pierce of Esquire made about another sports legend after his own fall from grace. Which occurred almost immediately after the infamous Golf Digest cover reprinted at the top of our post went to print in late 2009, a Photoshopped illustration that if anything understated the overload of cult-like old media hagiography inside the magazine.
As Pierce wrote:
Back in 1997, one of the worst-kept secrets on the PGA Tour was that Tiger was something of a hound. Everybody knew. Everybody had a story. Occasionally somebody saw it, but nobody wanted to talk about it, except in bar-room whispers late at night. Tiger’s People at the International Management Group visibly got the vapors if you even implied anything about it. However, from that moment on, the marketing cocoon around him became almost impenetrable. The Tiger Woods that was constructed for corporate consumption was spotless and smooth, an edgeless brand easily peddled to sheikhs and shakers. The perfect marriage with the perfect kids slipped so easily into the narrative it seemed he’d been born married.
Anything dissonant was dealt with quickly and mercilessly. Tiger’s caddy, an otherwise unemployable thug named Steve Williams, regularly harassed any spectator whom Williams thought might eventually harsh his man’s mellow. The IMG handlers differed from Williams only in that they were slightly more polite. The golfing press became aware that stories about Tiger’s temper, say, or about his ties to unsavory corporate grifters, would mean the end of access to the only golfer in the world who matters. There is a quick way to tell now which journalists have made this devil’s bargain and which ones haven’t — the ones insisting that this “accident” is somehow “not a story” are the sopranos in the chorus.
But the more impenetrable Tiger’s cocoon was, the more fragile it became. It was increasingly vulnerable to anything that happened that was out of the control of the people who built and sustained it, and the events of last week certainly qualify. Now he’s got one of those major Media Things on his hands, and there is nothing that he, nor IMG, nor the clinging sponsors, nor anyone else can do about it. He is going to be everyone’s breakfast for the foreseeable future. (Among his many headaches, there is absolutely no way that the Enquirer quits on this story. See Edwards, John.) And he’s going to be some kind of punch line for the most of the rest of his public career. There is some historical irony in all that, and not just for myself.
The media can become equally and “unexpectedly” tight-lipped when it comes to breaking the truth about professional group sports as well, of course. An anecdote that made “America’s Team” at the height of their fame in the 1990s seem more like Sodom and Gomorrah’s Team follows on the next page.