Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tiger Agonistes

Everyone has an opinion about the incredible fall of Tiger Woods. My favorite piece in these latest annals of Tigerology is by Frank Rich (for my money America's best columnist). Rich takes the gap between the appearance and reality of Tiger as a metaphor for our times -- the selling of the Iraq war on false pretenses; the Enron scandal and disastrous Wall Street trickery; and all that other lying and duplicity that has fooled an intellectually lazy and gullible America over recent decades.

At least we can thank Tiger for giving friends and families something to talk about over the holidays. And there's doubtless much more to come in this story that's careened far beyond the worst nightmares of Tiger's handlers. Is a divorce in the works? How long will Tiger remain in seclusion? Can we expect one of those confessional press conferences or tv interviews? Will Tiger be granted that second chance that Americans love to extend to their disgraced yet repentant heroes? And what about Tiger's golf game and his pursuit of the holy grail of most career major victories? There will be plenty more material for the gossip rags, pundits, golf experts, and even anthropologists. I wrote this article published in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Philadephia Inquirer, and several other papers.

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What Kind of Tiger Will Emerge from the Wilderness?

By Orin Starn

As a weekend golfer who is also an anthropologist, I've been watching the recent travails of Tiger Woods and am struck by how well they fit with one of my profession's standby concepts, namely that of the “social drama.”

According to this model, developed by the great Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner, every society undergoes crises that unfold in a culturally ritualized form. Dr. Turner premised four stages to the most common chain of events: breech, crisis, redressive action and reintegration.

Although he based his scheme on traditional African tribes, it applies surprisingly well to our own wired world, including celebrity scandal. In the most recent case, Mr. Woods's alleged affairs breached our culture's conventions. Crisis followed – the superstar's headline-grabbing crash followed by allegations of his involvement with a cocktail waitress and other women, and another late-night ambulance visit to his home. Both the real life of Tiger Woods the man and the vanilla corporate profile of Tiger Woods the brand seemed to crumble almost overnight.

The third stage, an attempt at redressive action, began with a statement on the golfer's website apologizing for “transgressions” and harm to his family.

We now approach the fourth stage in this anthropological drama, namely reintegration and repairing the gap that has opened between Mr. Woods and his fans. It's a sequence we've seen before with other sinning superstars, such as with Alex Rodriguez's steroid use. In that case, the baseball player's public confession and later strong postseason performance seemed to lead many fans to embrace him with real affection for the first time.

But, as Dr. Turner observed in Africa and as anthropologists have noted, social dramas can also end not with a resolution, but with a permanent schism. It's already clear that Mr. Woods will not easily regain his place as one of the planet's most ubiquitous pitchmen and culture heroes. Nowadays, redressive action seems to work only if you're willing to squirm and suffer a bit in front of the cameras. As much as it goes against the control-freak personality of a man who named his yacht “Privacy,” Mr. Woods may have to face the ritual humiliation and penitence of a Barbara Walters interview or a teary press conference if he wants to refurbish his brand.

For now, he occupies the space of what we anthropologists call “liminality” – the wilderness between one status and another. He is no longer the role model whose triumphs on the golf course seemed to be matched by his rectitude and family bliss off it. But while he remains secluded from the prying public eye, neither do we know just what he will become.

During my research for a coming book about golf's role in American society, I followed Mr. Woods around at the U.S. Open tournament several years ago. A crowd of thousands kicked up the dust while trailing this single man, like the devotees of some prophet. Mr. Woods radiated charisma then, but I felt something icy and almost selfish about his capacity to shut out the world in pursuing a lower score. I also was struck by gallery members' nervousness, even fear, of coughing or moving during his swing and being singled out for his withering displeasure. Mr. Woods was like Apollo, a brilliant yet frightening god.

I understood how important his intense focus was to his success, and I do hope he will continue to use it to thrill us with his athletic genius. Simultaneously, though, the anthropologist side of me hopes he will find a way to let us in a bit more. The great golfer would not be the less for stopping sometimes to slap hands with a little boy or to smile now and then to the crowd. As his aura of otherworldliness diminishes, perhaps he can find a way to replace it with something that will better integrate him with the rest of us mortals.

We know he's human now, and I'm rooting for him – not only on the golf course but in life.