Monday, April 11, 2011

Why Do We Root For Tiger Woods?

Prior to 1997, watching golf was akin to an exciting evening of paint drying.  Really, what could be more boring than watching a bunch of old, white men (most of whom were out of shape) hit a small white ball on a course full of spectators who weren’t allowed to speak above a whisper?  I actually even played golf around this time and found no value in watching professionals do it on television.  In fact, I probably opted to watch Lifetime movies starring Tori Spelling with my mother than waste a Saturday afternoon invested in a horrifically long golf tournament.
And then, in 1997, Tiger Woods won the Masters.  He didn’t just win it; he demolished the field by twelve strokes.  And in that moment, me and millions of others started tuning into golf tournaments simply to watch Tiger play.  Even if we couldn’t name another professional golfer, we were eager to see Tiger win decisively, and would make bets on rounds that would pit Tiger against the field.  After he racked up numerous endorsements, an insane amount of media attention, and a huge spotlight that brought along tremendous pressure, he not only performed admirably, he actually exceeded our expectations to the point where we thought he was superhuman.  When his father, Earl, made bizarre claims regarding Tiger’s ability to possibly beat other top athletes at their respective sports, we didn’t doubt it because Tiger was better at golf than most people were at anything.   He was well on track to shred every golfing record possible, he had become a billionaire off a sport no one previously cared about, and then….
November 2009 happened.
And Tiger Woods became human.  Really human.  And his life, subsequently, crumbled due to his own indiscretions.  Now, we can argue the validity of the public judgment, technically he did nothing illegal though his actions were widely viewed as morally reprehensible, but even his apologies for his actions seemed, well, insincere.  And suddenly the infallible Tiger seemed like every other athlete that thought the rules of society did not apply to them.  He took time off, lost a multitude of endorsements, as well as much of the public admiration he had enjoyed for his entire career.  And he, to his own admission, deserved all of it.  Simply put, Tiger Woods seemed like an asshole. 
So why was I, and I assume many, pulling for him this weekend at the Masters? Why did I feel a sudden burst of excitement when I noticed he was tied for the lead on Sunday, and subsequently disappointed when he failed to deliver? 
There’s some kind of cognitive dissonance when it comes to athletic admiration towards people we don’t actually know, and I strongly believe fans struggle to understand why.  We form bonds with athletes because they often defy the impossible and perform in ways we can’t quite comprehend.  Though we don’t know them personally, there is a level of relatability because they, like us, are human.  If they were robots, or even a race horse, there may be a level of interest, but the connection is obviously not the same.  But the truth is, we don’t view athletes as human beings, they are conduits to wish fulfillment and it really doesn’t matter who embodies it, as long as the goal is achieved.
But it’s easy to find grey areas, because as implied, athletes are fallible, display emotion, and often fail before they succeed.  We see the work an athlete puts in to hone his craft, and therefore appreciate the growth when it translates to the playing field.  Additionally, we live in a world with 24/7 news coverage and a plethora of sports story and discussion on the internet (we may even have direct contact on Twitter or Facebook), thus we feel as if we know these athletes on a personal level because we are fed snippets about their home life and background in the media’s (or athlete’s) effort to humanize them.  And even though this exists, we are not actually interacting with them on any sort of meaningful level; we are only ingesting tidbits of an image they are portraying, therefore not actually forming a real, non-superficial bond.  Essentially, we really are only emotionally connected to them, not because we care about them as people, but only how their accomplishments make us feel about ourselves (perhaps watching greatness inspires us to also be great, or maybe it gives us an excuse to not try at all because someone is performing on levels we cannot dream of…but that’s another debate).  This is why we may view a neighbor or family member who has engaged in similar behavior in a completely different light.  The level of personal relationship we have with someone we actually interact with invests us emotionally in their lives, as it pertains to our own, because we automatically define them beyond a skill they possess.  Simply put, we see them as three dimensional, so indiscretions and personality quirks factor into the way we understand them as a whole, which is not the case with athletes because we only associate them with the value of their performance in sport. 
So, when people wonder how someone can root for Michael Vick or Tiger Woods because they have been deemed by society as “horrible people,” it’s simply because they never were “real people” to us to begin with.  They are objects, widgets; essentially faceless, replaceable beings that help us achieve some kind of inner personal happiness/entertainment through performance.  It’s the performance that has value, it’s the accomplishment.  The person who achieves it is actually inconsequential.  And for those who are honestly offended by athlete’s indiscretions, you’re probably just lying to yourself to prove some kind of pointless point of moral high ground. 
So, this is why I was rooting for Tiger Woods on Sunday.  I really just don’t care if he’s a shitty person; the world is full of shitty people.  But I do get personal pleasure watching him win major golf tournaments, and I’m sure me and the rest of America were just trying to recapture that feeling of greatness again. 

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