Believing in Tiger Woods

Last month, on the opening day of my religious studies classes, I stirred up discussion by asking students about Tiger Woods. Did they agree with Brit Hume’s suggestion that Woods turn to Christianity, rather than the Buddhism he learned in his youth, to rehabilitate his image in the wake of his extramarital affairs? With this water under the bridge, I decided this morning to watch Woods’ public apology (his first major statement since the scandal broke) as I processed my daily flood of email.

As I watched Woods I opened an email message from a newspaper reporter, requesting an interview about this very speech. The reporter wanted a quote for a story premised on the following logic:

Whether such public confessions/apologies have become civic/secular societys version of repentance. From, say, Jimmy Swaggart to Paris Hilton, and onward, it seems some sort of a cohesive ritual convention has developed.

In trying to respond this request, I utterly failed to produce what this reporter probably wanted—a pithy sound bite.

Who Are “We”?

The problem was my uncertainty about the premise of his question. I’m not sure what to make of the idea that there is a stable discourse community (“civic/secular society”) in relation to which Woods can safely be understood to be speaking. Or, if there is any such “we,” constituting a community in front of which Woods was repenting, then I get confused about who “we” are, exactly. Are “we” the public to which the golf industry sells things? Are “we” the community to which the corporations who sponsor Woods sell things? Are “we” some broad and amorphous public (all English speakers who watch television?) or a narrower subset that Hume seemed to be addressing when he pressed Woods to repent in Christian rather than Buddhist ways? What about those of “us” who don’t care much about golf, Woods’ endorsements, or FOX news?

I have also noticed a split in discourses about Woods, in which there are two tracks: shame and humility on one track, but alongside this, a track on which Woods is living out the fantasies of many straight male sport fans, and possibly ashamed of himself for apologizing. Is this not behavior that is likely being discussed even as I write (mainly by men in the quasi-privacy of locker rooms) with words such as “pussy-whipped”? But if there is a split between “publics” then how should we identify the public to whom he spoke today?

Clearly this is not suitable material for a normal sound bite. Nevertheless, four things stood out to me as I watched Woods. Although they do not map directly onto the reporter’s question, they intersect with it.

Buddhism Meets Sex-Addiction Therapy

First, I noticed that Woods bought heavily into a discourse of therapy. Whatever we make of his “publics” and whoever helped him write his speech, it is interesting that the rhetoric put such emphasis on a discourse of getting help for a psychological dysfunction.

Second, in the face of pressure to downplay Buddhism, Woods did speak about returning to Buddhist values. Whether or not we find his brief words profound, either by the standards of exemplary Buddhism or by a more debased standard of television, it remains interesting that he spoke them. It focuses attention on a fascinating complexity in the reporter’s premise. Can we speak without distortion about an umbrella category of “repentance” encompassing Swaggart’s Pentecostal version and Woods’ Buddhism-meets-sex-addiction-therapy version? Perhaps so, perhaps not.

My colleague, Rachelle Scott, who studies contemporary Thai Buddhism and has followed how Woods’ saga is treated in Thailand, commented that his focus on the “psychology of his affliction” could reflect a somewhat Buddhist-inflected approach to counseling, in which his actions are based more on a deluded notion of happiness, as opposed to a Christian approach in which he needs to accept his inherent sinfulness and need for redemption.

However, third, Woods seemed most passionate, when talking neither about therapy nor Buddhism, but when going on the attack against the press for hounding his family. The rest of his speech was sufficiently stiff and flat to make me wonder whether Woods had actually written it, or fully believed it.

Godlike Prowess

Finally, the single most interesting thing to me as a religious studies scholar was how he ended the speech, with words—here again, more passionate and apparently heartfelt than most of what had come before—about people coming “to believe in him” once more. If we wish to take a page from scholars who compare religions cross-culturally, and think about sports and media stars as somehow “godlike” or “mythic” heroes, this may be the most revealing phrase in the entire speech.

Although pursuing this last line of inquiry is usually not a high priority for me compared to other scholarly questions I can ask, in this case I feel that the theme dropped in my lap. At a minimum, there seems to be some overlap between the “lower,” more human, end of discourses about mythic exemplars, and the “higher” end of discourses about role models. So, turning back to our poor reporter trying to meet a deadline, suppose we ask how repentance relates to the idea of Woods as mythic or godlike. Here again I become confused, since I had thought that his godlike status was based mainly on his golfing skills. Perhaps his “sacred aura” could be supplemented by his sexual magnetism? But, then again, this made him an unsuitable bourgeois husband. Should we consider this one step forward and one step back, for a net wash somewhat like a back-to-back hole-in-one and double bogey? I do not have the answers, only questions.

If godlike prowess is now (under the conditions of 21st-century neoliberalism) also measured by endorsement deals, and if endorsement deals are premised on being a good family man, and if being a good family man is premised on therapy—then perhaps this makes sense of some of the logic behind today’s speech.

But, if this is the provisional conclusion to which we have moved, a question still lingers: to what publics, exactly, does this actually make sense? Perhaps I am simply too much of a “non-believer” in this sort of “religious community” for it to make much sense to me. So a final question arises. How many others are there like me, watching television on this beautiful day? Does our existence affect the premise of the reporter’s original question?

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