The Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods Model: Why It Will Never Work With The Media

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 02:  Tiger Woods watches on with basketball star Michael Jordan on the 5th green during the Pro-am at the Wachovia Championship at Quail Hollow Country Club on May 2, 2007 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Considering that he has looked to Michael Jordan as a mentor for most of his career, it’s no surprise that Tiger Woods has followed the "Michael Jordan Model" in dealing with the media.

It’s also no surprise that the media—sports and gossip writers alike—have now turned on Woods in a New York minute, just as they did with Jordan.

The Jordan/Woods strategy on how to deal with the media is intricate, complex and is slowly implemented over a series of years.

But, here’s an attempt to explain it.

First and foremost, they establish their dominance.

The moment they walk into the media center, or step in front of a group of reporters, the immediately turn on the "I’m better than you and I’m only here because the NBA/PGA Tour is making me be here. In my mind, the journalism profession is worthless and my intelligence is head and shoulders above yours."

They will look down on the media.

They will insert subtle comments intended to put down the journalism profession.

They will embarrass reporters in front of their peers if they ask intrusive or difficult questions, in the hopes that the thought of further embarrassment might stop them from asking similar questions in the future.

They will also create a set of rules:

1) I’ll let you hang with me as long as you never print anything detrimental to my image.

2) The moment you print something bad about me or any of my friends or close associates, you are cut off for good.  You will be forever banished from the ‘circle of trust’, and you will spend the rest of your days receiving nothing more than vague, detail-less answers.

3) One person straying from the Jordan/Woods rules can ruin it for the rest.  For example, if one single reporter writes an embarrassing or negative article about them, they may completely cut off the media for a few days. 

The ultimate principle: If Woods or Jordan ever feel as if they are losing control over what journalists print or say, they will punish them, and possibly even cut hem off for good.

Now, you may be saying "These are professional journalists, why in the world would any of them stick to these ridiculous unspoken, implied rules?"

Well, very often they don’t have much of a choice.  

Will their editors be happier and offer them that promotion or pay rise if they are unable to get anything from Woods or Jordan that the public doesn’t already know?

What would be the point of newspapers, magazines, or Web sites spending money to send these journalists to games and events if they are not able to get anything from the biggest stars?

But this "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" arrangement can create a very dangerous situation, and is part of the reason why athletes can often go years and even entire careers without the real truth ever coming out.

It creates a situation where some of those who the public depend on for information are only giving you what Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan want you to have. 

In Michael Leahy's book "When Nothing Else Matter" about Jordan's final comeback with the Washington Wizards, he referred to those journalists who played by Jordan's rules as the "Jordan Guys".

They got to hang with Jordan, talk to him about personal issues, about his family, his friends, etc., but, professionally speaking it didn't matter much because they were often too afraid to print anything they might have uncovered anyway.

Now, this type of situation is not necessarily the fault of the media.  After all, they are just trying to do a job like the rest of us.

If your boss tells you to completely re-word that email you were intending on sending to your client, would you ignore him and still send it?

You may…but you probably won’t be working there much longer if you do.

Although there are undoubtedly many journalists who play by the Jordan/Woods rules, journalists by nature are always itching to tell the truth; it’s in their blood and it’s what they’ve been trained to do.

So, when the opportunity does arise where they can print the absolute truth and offer their real opinions of you without any real threat of being "punished"—because every single reporter in the country is doing the same thing—they are going to remember all those times Jordan/Woods looked at them like they were fools.

They are going to remember all of those little comments that implied how Jordan/Woods thought journalists were sleazy and worthless.

They are going to remember all those times they were embarrassed by Jordan/Woods in front of their peers.

They are going to remember all those times that their stories suffered because Jordan/Woods were "punishing" the media by not speaking to them for days on end.

They are going to remember that this whole unspoken arrangement was never really an arrangement of equals.

And they are going to remember what it felt like all those years to be treated like a peasant by men who thought they were better than them just because they could hit a little white ball, are throw a round orange ball through a steel hoop.

As we have seen twice now, the Jordan/Woods model works for a while, but at some point during everyone’s career, a little opening will arise, and when it does, the media will unleash the full weight of their power, reach and ability to manipulate the public’s opinion…and there’s not a dam thing Jordan/Woods can do about it.

Perhaps the dynamics of the unspoken arrangement that Woods and Jordan created with the media was skewed from the very start.

Perhaps those who were seemingly controlled by these worldwide mega-stars were actually the ones holding the real power all along.