Give And Take

By Ron Sirak Photos by Getty Images
April 30, 2012

Red Smith, one of only four pure sportswriters to win the Pulitzer Prize, said of his profession: "Sportswriters are underpaid and overprivileged." What he meant is that in exchange for long hours and endless deadlines, we get a ringside seat to greatness, a front-row view of history. The trade is well worth it, or we wouldn't be doing what we do.

The smart athletes understand this relationship. How they are portrayed in the media enhances their value. The better we understand them, the more accurately we can communicate to the fans their essence -- the more we can humanize them. This takes their value beyond the sporting world into the business world. They are a person and not merely a bunch of statistics.

And that's why the move by Tiger Woods to skip a pre-tournament media session at this week's Wells Fargo Championship and replace it with a social media Q&A with fans

is not only a mistake on his part, but also a blow to the game that should be opposed by the PGA Tour. This is a time when Woods needs to humanize himself more, not less. This is a time when the tour needs to defend journalism.

Now there are going to be those Tiger supporters who will say this is merely the whiny media grousing over the fact they are being denied a chance to badger Woods. In fact, blocking out the media harms Woods more than it harms the media. This isolation creates a situation where Tiger is more likely to get cheap shots from the less ethical in the profession.

And if you're thinking that fans might get more out of Woods than the media does, guess again. In the 14-minute video posted on Woods' website of him answering questions from fans, the golfer said little of substance. He touched a bit on his swing faults at the Masters, talked about his all-time favorite putt, and said he's made an albatross twice in his life. So now you know.

Without disparaging bloggers squirreled away in Brooklyn basement apartments, it serves no one if the coverage of golf is reduced to bloggers squirreled away in Brooklyn basement apartments. But why even bother going to tournaments if we have no access to the players? The more access the media has, the fairer the coverage will be. Everyone gains from that -- the player, the fans and the sport. And that's why the tour needs to take a stand on this matter.

Why do we like high school and college sports so much? In part, it's because we know the people playing. They are our kids or the children of friends. We know when one of them has lived up to their potential -- or exceeded it -- and we know when they have fallen short. We cheer for them and we cry for them.

Red Smith also said this: "I've always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again." That's exactly it. The true fans, even if they have watched every shot of a tournament, want to read about it as a way of revisiting the joy of watching it. To fully enhance that enjoyment, it is not enough for us to understand golf; we also have to understand the golfer.

Mostly, we are just trying to get at the truth. There is nothing to be gained from being wrong. All we have as journalists is our credibility. And credibility comes through accountability. When a mistake is made, it must not only be corrected, it must be acknowledged. That is a journalist's version of having to pay a fine. As we transition from old media to new media, we must bring with us these professional practices.

One of the highest forms of accountability to which I am held -- in addition to having my work vetted by an editor -- is when I write something critical of a player or official, can I look them in the eye and feel I was fair the next time I meet them? If we create an atmosphere in which the players do not have direct contact with reporters, that accountability is gone. No one benefits from that.

Arnold Palmer had an intuitive understanding of this. He made an effort to get to know members of the media. Vijay Singh took an alternate path. The result was that on those borderline pitches, Palmer got the benefit of the doubt from the media and Singh was called out on strikes. That's an athlete's version of working the referee when it comes to journalists.

There's no question that just as the financial rewards are greater for today's athletes, so are the challenges. There are fewer newspaper golf writers, but more websites. And there is way more electronic media. In Palmer's day, Golf Channel and ESPN didn't exist. But to not come to the interview room -- either before a tournament or during the event -- is shortsighted and creates more problems than it solves.

In 1997, after he had won the Masters by 12 strokes, Woods came into the U.S. Open as the favorite. After a 74 in the first round, Tiger refused to answer questions from the media, agreeing only to have a pool reporter ask two or three. The next day, Woods shot 67 and came to the interview where he spent 15 minutes explaining why he blew off the media the day before.

One of the difficult parts of being an athlete is talking after a bad day at the office, but it has to be done. To be fair, no one has been in the media room since 1996 more than Woods. He has not always been as open as we would like, but he is not alone in that regard. But this is the wrong time for him to take a step back from the media. The media is your enemy only if you make the media your enemy, and that is the danger he faces right now.

We are trying to sort out what happened to that once marvelous game and we can't do that without Tiger's help. And what Tiger has to face is the fact that this is not the year 2000 anymore. He can no longer set the agenda for how he is covered. And unless he participates in the coverage of his game and, to a certain extent, his life, that coverage will be inaccurate, at best, and perhaps even mean spirited.

When the slop hit the fan for Woods late in 2009, we realized how little we knew Tiger. Woods also had no one in the media through whom he could get his story out, through whom he could be humanized. And that is what this is all about -- humanizing athletes. This is the time for Woods to take a step toward the media, not away, and talk about the state of his game and the distractions of his life.

When I am asked why I became a golf writer I answer by saying that I don't write about golf, I write about people who happen to play golf. One of the reasons we love sports is because it speeds up the human clock. We learn a lot about a person in a very short period of time -- how they handle success and failure, their ethics, their humor and anger and more. That magic is gone if we allow athletes to hide from us.

Cultivating fans through social media is admirable, but not at the expense of the real media. There is nothing to be gained from building barriers between the athlete and the media. Instead, we all lose. In this case, Woods is hurting himself and he is hurting the PGA Tour. He has to win back the trust of millions of fans that he disappointed, and the media -- not social media -- is one way to do that. Let's hope this was a one-off and not a game plan for the future by the Woods camp.