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Athletes, Fame And Accountability

February 7, 2011

Shortly after the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Jets to reach the Super Bowl, CBS' Jim Nantz interviewed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The first question began this way: "Ben, with all you've been through this year &"

Stop!

Seriously, when will the media and the world stop treating athletes who behave inexcusably as if they are somehow victims? Roethlisberger got himself suspended by the NFL and was fortunate to avoid criminal prosecution for acting like a fool in public on more than one occasion. At best he's a boor; at worst he's a celebrity who avoided prosecution on a sexual-assault charge because he was rich enough to lawyer-up in a hurry.

Which brings us to golf and Tiger Woods.

In the past few months apologizing for Woods has become a tradition like no other among TV announcers--and, to be fair, some who write about golf for a living. Saying "what Tiger's been through," or some variation, has become almost as commonplace as the phrase "Tiger for the win" was before Nov. 27, 2009. Enough already.

Neither Woods nor Roethlisberger has "been through" anything. They have put people through hell. Woods did it first and foremost to his wife and children, but he also did it to his friends, his sponsors, the other players on tour who had to answer countless questions about his transgressions and every fan or kid who cheered him--in part because he was a brilliant golfer, but also because he and his marketing machine sold him as something he wasn't.

Roethlisberger also victimized friends and family with his behavior, but he did the same to his teammates, his coaches and the city of Pittsburgh, which had put him on a pedestal for winning two Super Bowls.

Of course, the way our celebrity culture works, Roethlisberger will have his pedestal back if the Steelers win the Super Bowl. So, I suspect, will Woods the minute he wins his next major.

Sports fans tend to make the following connection: If he's a great athlete/coach, he must be a great person. Intellectually, fans may understand there's no connection, but emotionally they don't. This phenomenon was best explained years ago by that exemplar of human behavior, Bob Knight. Not long after his infamous chair toss, Knight said this: "I understand that as long as I win people here [in Indiana] will think me eccentric. If I ever stop winning, they will say I'm an embarrassment."

Knight went to his fifth Final Four in 1992. But his team made it past the Sweet Sixteen just once in the next eight years and he was fired in the fall of 2000 for grabbing a student who addressed him as "Knight." Had Knight been to the Final Four the previous spring, the student probably would have been expelled and Knight would have received a Rotary Club award for making teenagers understand the importance of respecting their elders.

In golf, everyone wants to forgive Woods because the game still needs him. Tim Finchem needs him winning as he tries to negotiate new TV deals. Networks need him on leader boards to boost ratings. Sponsors need him winning to sell product.

That's all fine. But it doesn't mean people have to act as if he's "been through" anything and start screaming there's a "new" Tiger because he uses the word "hoo-yah" in a tweet. Anyone who has observed Woods the last year will tell you he is the same person he has always been: selfish, driven, secretive and untrusting.

That doesn't mean we can't appreciate his golf or enjoy seeing him play well again--which most people fully expect him to do this year. But when he wins at Augusta (or Congressional or Royal St. George's or Atlanta AC, take your pick) the first question should be: "Tiger, after all you've put people through, what does your first major since 2008 mean to you?"

If you want to ask someone about what he's been through, try Phil Mickelson. He has dealt with his wife's battle with breast cancer, his mother's battle with breast cancer and, more recently, his own battle with psoriatic arthritis that may jeopardize his career. That is "going through" a lot.

Mickelson's win at the Masters last year--trite TV lines aside--was worthy of cheers and tears. If the Steelers win the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger should be applauded for his play--nothing more. When Woods wins another major he, too, should be applauded for his play. In neither case should there be talk about redemption or overcoming anything.

"Nice playing," should just about do it.

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