Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Intersection of Race and Scandal

The Masters golf tournament begins in Augusta next week and Tiger Woods will make his much-anticipated return to the golf course for competitive play for the first time since revelations of marital infidelity surfaced in November of last year. Since then, at least a dozen women have come forward to say they had had some kind of sexual relationship with Woods. The scandal has set off a media firestorm with many denouncing Woods as a fallen idol. The four-time Masters champion has also lost endorsement deals with various image-sensitive corporations. Woods, himself, went into hiding surfacing only last week to give interviews to ESPN and The Golf Channel.

In those interviews, Woods was contrite, but guarded. He said he understood that he had let people down, but he remained tight-lipped about details of the incident that broke this scandal open - a Thanksgiving night car crash outside of his Florida home. Woods certainly has the right to reveal only the information he wants the public to hear. In fact, upon examining other celebrity sex scandals of the past couple of decades, one might think that Woods is being subjected to unfair treatment by the media and the public.

Babe Ruth, the icon of baseball, was shielded by the press in terms of his sexual escapades. A famous though perhaps apocryphal story has Ruth being chased naked through a chain by a jealous lover in view of a group of reporters. As the narrative of Ruth and his time go, those reporters felt it would be too damaging to the country to air such personal matters. Members of the press are purported to have known about John F. Kennedy and his affair with Marilyn Monroe in the White House. Again, the good of the nation was supposedly cited for not making these matters public.

But, times change and in a super-competitive media environment, the sexual lives of celebrities attract attention and make money. However, the degree of scrutiny to which Tiger Woods has been subjected still seems disproportional to other scandals.

Wade Boggs, former Red Sox star, admitted to sexual addiction sometime in the early '90s and underwent treatment, but he was not compelled to apologize to anyone. Warren Beatty was well-known for having relationships with many, many women through the 1960s, ‘70s, & ‘80s, but is still a revered actor and was even courted by the Democratic Party for a potential White House run. Bill Clinton survived the impeachment and removal process of 1998-99 thanks to his gift of charisma and a robust economy. Today, people acknowledge that he is (or was) a philanderer, but not with quite the disdain that is reserved for Mr. Woods.

It is interesting that figures like Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson are made to endure scorn for engaging in similar behavior (although Magic Johnson received a great deal of support as well). Is the color of their skin what makes their cases so special? Why does Tiger Woods lose endorsement deals (he is still the best golfer in the world) while Warren Beatty gets a wink, a nod, and a high five?

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