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The Prodigal Son Returns

What have we learned?

Tiger Woods is back. At least, Tiger Woods the golfer is back, roaming the fairways of Augusta National, where he is the betting favorite to win his 15th career major title at The Masters this week. Whether Tiger Woods the institution can ever return is still an open question.

Since he crashed his Cadillac into a fire hydrant last November—supposedly in an attempt to escape his golf club-wielding wife—Woods has taken one of the more dramatic nosedives in recent memory. With every turn, the story of his epic string of infidelities grew more sordid: sex with cocktail waitresses, sex with porn stars, sex on Ambien, and, most recently, sex with his next-door neighbor’s college-aged daughter. Important aspects of Tiger’s brand have suffered irreparable damage—the image of Woods as a paragon of discipline, mental toughness, and self-control that made him an ideal pitchman for corporate America is gone for good. Unsurprisingly, Tiger’s stable of sponsors has thinned accordingly, as everyone from Gatorade to Accenture has bid goodbye to the hapless golfer.

But one company has stood by him: Nike, a firm that is no stranger to controversy, refuses to write Woods off. Displaying its characteristic marketing savvy, the athletic powerhouse released a commercial featuring Tiger on the eve of his Master’s return, which has since enjoyed a flood of free publicity.

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Rather than eschew discussion of Woods’s collapse, the ad engages directly with its star’s troubles. Filmed in black and white, the spot features Tiger staring into a camera that slowly zooms towards his sullen face. Meanwhile, a recording of the golfer’s dead father, Earl, plays in the background. “Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion,” dad says. “I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?” Tiger blinks under the weight of his guilt, a modern-day Hamlet confronted with his father’s ghost. The image fades to black as a Nike swoosh fills the screen.

Many have criticized Nike for its tawdry exploitation of family drama to sell shoes. And yet the commercial is undeniably powerful. Woods looks vulnerable, human—something that often eluded him even at his peak. He is recast from philandering athlete to prodigal son, ashamed to have let down dad.

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Nike has not revealed what Earl Woods was originally discussing in the audio clip used for the advertisement, but his words present an interesting approach to his son’s troubles—one that contrasts sharply with the tone adopted by most other commentators.

On Wednesday, Billy Payne, Chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, publicly admonished Woods in a press conference. Calling Tiger’s conduct “egregious,” Payne stated that Woods’s “future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change.”

This is the consensus—that Tiger is a deviant, a sinner, someone who needs to bring his conduct in line with notions of acceptable sexual behavior before he can think of acquiring any more athletic glory. Writing in The Washington Post, Thomas Boswell asserted that for Woods to “sin big and win big” by capturing a Masters title this week would be an affront to the justice of the universe.

The power of this puritanical camp has compelled Tiger to undergo a four-month-long mea culpa highlighted by a 45-day trip to sex rehab and a rediscovery of his Buddhist roots. Following the script perfectly, Woods has renounced himself in a flurry of tears and contrition.

I can’t help but feel for him. There is something sinister in the public shaming of anyone who dares transgress notions of bourgeois respectability, whether he be world-class golfer or influential politician. The obsession with holding our “role models” to particular standards of sexual conduct reflects an ugly, moralistic strain that holds too much sway over American public life.

Nike’s ad is effective because it reframes the entire scandal in the way it should be viewed. Tiger is a man with family problems. He should feel ashamed to face his father, not to take up a golf club.

The Masters is often associated with the coming of spring, as the azalea bushes of Augusta National supposedly suffuse viewers across the country with warmth and the promise of renewal. The symbolism couldn’t be more appropriate in this case. It’s been a long winter for Tiger Woods. Maybe now the nation is ready to move past its moralism and into the light.

One of the cruel realities of golf is that when 100 men head into a tournament, 99 emerge as losers. But one wins. So go get ‘em, Tiger.

Daniel E. Herz-Roiphe ’10, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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