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Wednesday, 02 December 2009 14:31

Tiger hurts himself with silence

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Poor Tiger Woods. He is not only the greatest golfer of all time, but also perhaps the world’s most popular athlete. He is still in his prime and is already rich beyond imagination, still at the top of his game. He has a beautiful wife, adorable children, and a mansion for all of them to live in. He has movie star good looks and keeps himself in peak physical condition.

He has everything. Well, almost everything. What he doesn’t have is a good answer for the events that unfolded in the wee hours of the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, when news of a bizarre accident in his own driveway began to unfold in the media. First it was reported that he had been involved in a serious accident and was hospitalized in serious condition. It was reported that the “serious accident” involved backing his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant, and then a tree. It was reported that his wife had broken the window with a golf club to get him out, where he was found nearly unconscious and bleeding from facial lacerations when the police and rescue workers arrived on the scene.

Of course, the first thought most people might have would be that this was alcohol-related, but that was quickly dismissed as a contributing factor. As the hours passed, the Internet swarmed with rumors. There had been reports of an affair between Tiger and an attractive socialite in the gossip rags just days prior to the accident, and now various Web sites were busy “connecting the dots.” In the meantime, reports began to emerge that Woods’ wife had given two stories to the police, and now neither of them were talking. For three consecutive days, arrangements had been made for Woods to meet with the police to discuss the incident, and for three consecutive days, Woods canceled those meetings.

In the meantime, with no clear explanation for what had happened, the speculation and gossip continue to build. Had there been an argument between Woods and his wife over the alleged affair? Had she actually whacked him with a seven iron and busted his windshield in a fit of rage? Was he trying to cover for her now to save embarrassment?

Finally, on Sunday, Woods posted a message on his Web site that he alone was responsible for the accident and for the embarrassment to his family. He acknowledged that some “curiosity” about the accident was natural, but that the rumors being bandied about on the Internet were false.

Whatever happened — or did not happen — Woods’ strategy appears to be to hunker down, to weather the storm of bad publicity and wild speculation, to rely on an assumption that his right to privacy will ultimately trump the public’s curiosity and the media’s zealous pursuit of a juicy story, especially a potentially lurid one.

While this might be a strategy that would work for you or me, for celebrities, it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Privacy might be important to Woods — he once said that the thing he liked most about scuba diving is that the fish don’t know his name. He even named his first yacht “Privacy.” But whether it is important to him is of no interest to the media, and the longer Woods is silent, or posts only the vaguest messages imaginable in order to avoid answering questions, the worse this is going to get.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but gossip thrives in one. In the vacuum of Woods’ silence, the rumors and speculation are only going to intensify, the flames fanned by Woods’ own stubborn refusal to put them out. Ironically, sometimes the best way to put them out is to confess to everything, regardless of how embarrassing the truth may be.

Woods would do well to study the recent cases of David Letterman and Roger Clemens for some instructive lessons on how to handle an embarrassing situation. When rumors began to spread that Letterman was involved with a much younger intern on his show, rather than “hiding out” and issuing vague messages, he almost immediately acknowledged the affair in full, even using it as fodder for self-deprecating humor on his show. He apologized to everyone, especially his wife, but didn’t try to “accept responsibility” while also somehow keeping his reputation intact and pretending that things were other than they were.

Clemens, on the other hand, denied everything — charges of steroid usage, charges of infidelity — despite mounting evidence to the contrary. All this did was keep the story afloat longer, even drawing out new allegations as the scandal’s momentum continued to build over a period of weeks and months until Clemens had no credibility left and his reputation was essentially ruined.

None of this is to excuse Letterman’s actions, but it does go to show one thing. As gossip driven as the American public may be, it loses interest fairly quickly once a confession is offered. Some have said that the public is “forgiving” if the guilty are appropriately penitent. I doubt it is that so much as there is nothing left to gossip about once the truth is made plain.

Of course, Woods could simply issue a statement claiming that mistakes were made, and never answer any questions or make further comments on the accident out of respect for his wife and children. But he had better hope that anyone who might have been involved with this accident — his wife, a buddy he talked to about it in the aftermath, a family member, a neighbor who might have heard or seen something — has the same high regard for privacy that he does. And he had better learn to be very patient with the media, and with fans.

Whether Woods likes it or not — whether we like it or not — in the information age, stories do not go away until all the information is accounted for. If Woods feels that whatever happened is nobody’s business but his and his wife’s, I am in complete agreement with him. But if I were his friend, I would tell him that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County.)

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