I can’t say I’m surprised — either by the allegations or by what’s ensued since Friday’s wreck. 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.
Woods’ superstardom first blossomed in the early to mid-1990s, more or less around the same time that the Dallas Cowboys were enjoying their media resurgence under Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones, who built on the “America’s Team” hype already established in the late 1970s by former executives Tom Landry and Tex Schramm. After Johnson was replaced by Barry Switzer, who employed a see-no-evil mindset when it came to his team’s extracurricular activities, the Cowboys’ party insanity increased exponentially. At one point, many of the players chipped in to rent a house. near their practice facilities, to create an atmosphere that by all accounts was Animal House meets North Dallas Forty. It was eventually dubbed the “White House”, a name which has all sorts of layers of irony considering what was then going on in the real White House almost concurrently.
As the classic quote from veteran Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton went, “We’ve got a little place over here where we’re running some whores in and out, trying to be responsible, and we’re criticized for that, too.”
So did the Dallas-area news media jump at this killer story right in their backyard?
Of course not.
ESPN’s Jeff Pearlman writes in his must-read history of this era, Boys Will Be Boys:
The first member of the media to write of the White House was the Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard, who merely mentioned it in passing in a larger piece about partying in the NFL. “The reality is that many teams throughout the league had places like the White House,” says Le Batard. “But the Cowboys were the biggest, baddest, best, and anything they did was vastly more magnetized.” Upon hearing Le Batard’s story, the Dallas media went to work. In truth, many were well aware of the White House and its going-ons, but chose to ignore the story in the name of player-press relations. “Everyone knew about it, but what are you going to do, run a story about the guys cheating on their wives with hookers?” says Rob Geiger, a reporter for KRLD radio in Dallas. “The writers understood not to write about, the radio and TV guys understood not to talk about it, because we’d be vilified by the fans, and locked out by the team.”
It was a gargantuan lapse in news judgment. The White House had everything one craves in a story — sex, drugs, fame, football.
Gargantuan lapses in news judgment? Hey, the media could afford a few of those in the feel-good 1990s. Fortunately, in these more serious, sober times, the MSM cast-off its frivolous excesses, and hunkered down to take its watchdog role far more seriously.
(And if you believe that, I’ve got a stadium with a hole in its roof to sell you.)