Why Tiger matters

Eight days remain before the next decade starts, but the Tiger Woods jokes won't stop on New Year's Eve. Two of the latest -- on the Associated Press for naming Woods its "Athlete of the Decade" and on his golfing peers for voting him "PGA Tour Player of the Year" -- contained no shortage of pun and irony opportunities as the paparazzi circle for the kill, following Tiger, his wife and their suddenly formidable legal options. Ten years ago, Woods began the millennium as a transformational figure. He ends it as a punch line.

His dalliances with women are unimportant, just another example of gilded overindulging. But the Tiger Woods story matters, and here's why: He is proof of a massive failure on the part of the system, a failure we have seen before, indirectly, in baseball's steroids era. As with the steroids story, some might have tired of the Tiger saga by now. But in both cases, their refusal to disappear speaks to a larger truth that cannot be ignored.

In the steroids era, failures from all sectors of the industry -- league, union, individual players, press and fans -- produced a cycle of blame for which the damage has been obvious and far-reaching. Each party benefited in the short term from those failures; and to this day, none has been willing to take its share of responsibility. The true issue in the steroids debate -- integrity in a time of cynicism -- was smothered by greedy justifications: Well, you would've done the same thing for 10 million dollars. But they rang hollow when the clean and the dirty both, far too late, wanted their reputations back. The result, as George Mitchell said grimly in December 2007, was an institutional failure.

Tiger symbolizes another kind of institutional failure in the sports and culture mechanisms: The singular banality of the construct itself, of how heroes are created and destroyed, of the need for those heroes to misrepresent themselves for money. Perhaps most egregiously, the institution fails when the corporate entities that pay these athletes in the hundreds of millions for that misrepresentation run screaming for cover when the fraud is at last exposed.

It is fitting, then, that a decade which revealed the enormous and bittersweet distance between the on-field feats of some of sports' greatest players and the actual authenticity of those achievements should end with the crumbling of another canard.

In defense of Tiger, supporters argue that the details of whatever occurred in his driveway on Nov. 27 and its fallout did not belong to the public, certainly didn't belong as front-page news for two-thirds of a month, as they were in the New York Post, which ran a Tiger headline on its front page for 20 consecutive days. He is, for goodness sake, a golfer, not the head of the U.N. Security Council. And he is a young male who has earned $1 billion, and he isn't yet 34 years old. Opportunities for female company, naturally, would be virtually unlimited.

That argument is porous for many reasons, the most important one being this: He took the money. Tiger -- like Michael Jordan before him, LeBron James after him, and virtually every contemporary big-time athlete in between (Tim Duncan is a noteworthy exception) -- allowed his name to be used and manipulated for financial gain. For money, he allowed himself to be marketed and characterized with a virtuousness the world is now finding he did not possess. He allowed himself to be a pitchman to the lucrative family and children's demographic ("I'm Tiger Woods!") for dollar sums, and he is now left exposed. He sold his right to privacy -- the right to be unapologetically authentic -- as just another commodity.

Only when the athlete falls does he realize it was all blood money in the first place. Michael Vick found that out, as Woods is finding out now. Once the commodity loses its value, it is discarded.

The remedy for this trap is for athletes to be more careful about their promises to the public, in the form of making better, different commercials and selling a less hagiographic version of themselves. The money, from salary and endorsements, is readily available to them without the risk that personal transgressions will set them up to fail. The San Antonio Spurs' Duncan, for example, has earned roughly $142 million in salary alone since he entered the NBA in 1997, without being positioned by corporate handlers as anything other than being great at what he does. His dignity and privacy remain intact.

If all of that is too complicated, think of it like this: A good performance is usually enough.

The players willfully enter into this Faustian bargain to fool the public; and when events turn sour, this is the price. They are not innocents, for image construction is part of their public persona, part of what earns them money. They use it as a sort of currency to be traded upon when most convenient, almost as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Except that it doesn't always work.

When Kobe Bryant was involved in his infamous rape controversy, he attempted to redeem those chips. (Come on, guys, you know me.). For the most part, he was unsuccessful, and now he is what he always should have been, just the best basketball player going. As his Sprite commercials vanished, the façade was lifted. In an odd way, Kobe emerged cleaner -- or at least less deceptive -- on the other side.

The sports culture is not an isolated one. To the public, you have to look the part no matter what where you cross its field of vision. There's a reason the last unmarried president to enter the White House was Grover Cleveland in 1883, and the only lifelong bachelor to be elected president was the 15th, James Buchanan, in 1857.

In the television age, the need to look the part is the reason, strange though it may be, that this country has never elected a president with facial hair. William Howard Taft, in 1909, was the last president with a mustache.

The media doesn't help. The media professes to "know" these individuals, though we only see them at their place of business. Instead of sober coverage that focuses on an athlete's craft, we assume and create artificial heroes. Too many of us buy into the image construction.

I have been in the business since 1991, been writing about sports daily since 1997. I have covered the Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Washington Redskins as daily beats.

I have never been invited to a professional athlete's house for a social visit.

No professional athlete has ever visited mine.

None has ever been invited.

One, Art Howe, attended my first book party. Another, Ken Macha, attended my wedding party.

That's it.

That's how it should be. Interactions in the clubhouse, on the sidelines before games, at charity events and press conferences are nothing more than an extension of an athlete's performance on the field, often as valuable financially as hitting a home run.

We have to remember that the modern superstar is a corporate entity and needs to covered as such. To a large degree, all the media sees is what the corporation -- whether it is the NBA, the PGA Tour or Nike -- wants it to see. And yet, we celebrate the corporate-created image, well aware of its superficiality. One hand fills the helium balloon that is the hero game; the other holds the sharp pin.

Even before Tiger's spectacular crash, the cracks in the system were visible. Afterward, they are completely obvious. Yet recognition is one thing; reform -- especially as millions of dollars will be readily available to the next young phenomenon who has a clean face and the right parents -- is quite another. The model needs to change. Otherwise, the Woods saga will remain. The jokes will keep on coming. Until the next scandal takes its place, and we all fall into the same trap once again.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and the forthcoming "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.