This song by Jimi Hendrix kept coming to mind when writing this. Hero worship is a great example of building "Castles Made of Sand."
Tiger Woods is one of a handful of people who has been able to dominate his sport through sheer talent and/or force of personality, a list that includes larger-than-life sports figures such as Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Roger Federer. Recently, however, his name has been added to a longer, less distinguished list of celebrities tarnished by scandal: OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, and the list goes on and on.
This story has offended people on multiple levels. Some are obviously offended by his infidelity. (Many men, I suspect, are actually kind of jealous.) Others are more sympathetic toward Tiger and argue that his private life should remain private. Golfing skill earned him fame and respect, not the quality of his personal life. We should continue to focus on those skills that make him great and leave the rest alone. Still others ask the question that I find to be the most interesting and important: Why do we care? There are so many things happening in the world that merit more attention than Tiger Woods’ sex life. I sympathize with this complaint, but I also think that Tiger’s story demonstrates some very important truths. Tiger’s behavior, after all, is not the story. The story is the public reaction to his behavior.
The United States may be the most celebrity-obsessed nation of all time (although this is a trait that is not exclusively American in the modern world). Because people are trained from birth to constantly need some external source of entertainment, they end up worshiping entertainers. Now worship, some might say, is too strong of a word, but I find it very appropriate. Americans on average spend far more time, energy, and money on entertainment than they do on religious activities and institutions. They can often tell you more about sports statistics and contestants on American Idol than they can tell you about the Bible, and in my mind, actions speak louder than words.
The problem, however, goes far beyond spending huge amounts of time and money on entertainment. Many Americans, from what I can tell, show as much interest in celebrities’ personal lives as they do in the entertainment that these famous people provide. And in some cases, due to our modern obsession with “reality” TV, an individual’s personal life is the entire basis of his or her fame. Personally, I try to avoid celebrity “news,” and yet I often know which famous people are currently facing marital problems, struggling with weight issues, choosing the wrong fashion designer, or struggling to get pregnant. All that I have to do is go through the checkout stand at the supermarket to get a quick update. Just the other day, I was able to find out who had the best and worst beach bodies, and while I recognize the vital importance of this issue, those were some images that I (in some cases) really did not need to see.
So where does all of this interest in the personal lives of celebrities come from? One source may be the boredom and dissatisfaction that Americans feel with their own lives. By obsessing about celebrities, they get a chance to live vicariously through someone more beautiful and talented. In other cases, the problems celebrities face may actually cause average Americans to feel better about their lives. We may face marital problems, but at least we are not Tiger Woods. Of course, we may also be a society that is always on the lookout for idols and heroes. In an entertainment-crazed culture, this search naturally draws us to people with musical, acting, or athletic skills. But we want more. We want a human being that we can admire, so we are then unable to resist the desire to find out who this person is that entertains us so well. Unfortunately, idol worship directed toward entertainers will often lead to disappointment, and when it does, we make those celebrities pay in the tabloid press.
In addition to the tabloids and the public, certain companies have also decided to punish Tiger Woods. I remember seeing a chart in a newspaper once that showed the highest paid athletes in the world, and Tiger Woods topped the list to the tune of approximately $100 million in a single year. He made a lot of money winning golf tournaments, but it mostly came from advertising dollars. So why do advertisers dish out that kind of money to a guy who is not necessarily an authority on many of the products – watches, razors, cars, etc. – that he endorses? Part of the answer goes back to the celebrity worship mentioned earlier. I also believe, however, that famous people endorsing products, and advertising in general, is clear proof that the human race is not particularly rational. Because Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan is paid to tell us to buy something, does this improve the quality of the product? I hope that we will all answer no, and yet companies keep shelling out the big bucks. Are they that stupid? I doubt it. The truth is that we are apparently that stupid. Advertising does not appeal to human reason. It appeals to subconscious desires. So apparently, on some subconscious level, we believe that buying a Buick or wearing Hanes Underwear will improve our golf game or make us dunk like Michael Jordan. Celebrities project an image which appeals to our subconscious desire to be successful “like Mike.” This is why Tiger has been losing some endorsement deals. Tiger Woods’ appeal to consumers was not simply his golf game; it was also the positive, “family values” image that he projected. Kobe Bryant ran into the same problem a few years ago when he had his own sex scandal. Kobe has shown, however, that you can eventually earn some of that reputation back. Will Tiger someday do the same?
Finally, in fairness to Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Bill Clinton, Jonathan Edwards, and countless other famous, powerful men who have been unable to resist “temptation” at some point in their lives, it is important to note that these celebrities have opportunities that few men (or women) can ever fully comprehend. It is easy to be faithful when opportunities to cheat are not falling into your lap (pun intended). But if you are famous in a world of people who find fame irresistible, it can be difficult to keep “fighting them off.” To paraphrase Henry Kissinger – a guy who claimed to get a lot of sex – “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Ultimately, we humans are the same as all other animals, who are driven by the primal desire to get basic things like food and sex. The desire for lots of sex, in the end (no pun intended), may be one of the biggest reasons why people want to be famous in the first place. One of the biggest costs of this fame, however, is the privacy that Tiger Woods keeps requesting from the public. Privacy, however, is one thing that he gave up a long time ago and will never fully get back.