Indeed, what can we learn from the spectacular fall from grace of Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, and the tragic, senseless death of Chris Henry?
Sadly, some of the most poignant lessons we can gather are damning evidences that as a nation, a people, and a society, our values are hopelessly twisted as the first decade of the 21st century ticks away.
The United States of America was once an outpost founded on the ideals of freedom from tyranny, tolerance of fellow man, acceptance of diverse ideas about living, and raising up of the downtrodden.
Yet now, in this bustling, ever-evolving Internet Age, “we the people” breed our own cruel form of electronic despotism, spawn hatred and intolerance (sometimes unwittingly), decry as wicked those who are different for any reason, and generally ridicule those who, for whatever reason, are less fortunate than we are.
Such as Chris Henry.
How in the world was he less fortunate than anyone? Well, as I said in Part I, Henry was clearly the victim of a pervasive mental or emotional disorder. This disorder led him to a state of lowered impulse control, most likely at times when he felt somehow threatened, alone, or powerless.
In such times—which might last a few minutes, or at most, just a few hours—Henry was vulnerable. He was liable to do just about anything, no matter how illegal or depraved, and no matter how diametrically opposed to his own core moral beliefs. He would have retained little or no memory of it.
Now, am I saying he shouldn’t have been punished for these things? Absolutely not! To my eye, in part because he was a famous, high-profile athlete, he got off very lightly for some of his criminal offenses. That’s one of the privileges of fame.
The curse, though, is a co-creation of the delusions of immortality and infallibility that youth so often have, combined with the power to do most anything with virtual impunity.
It’s an intoxicating confluence of mistresses, the combination of which led directly to Chris Henry’s death.
In Part I, I suggested that someone should have advised Henry to seek professional help for his disorder. However, do not believe me to be naïve enough to think that such an admonition would have ever been uttered or, if it were, taken seriously.
For Chris Henry to come out and admit that he was disordered and that he was seeking psychiatric health would have slain the Golden Goose that snatched him up from his humble roots in Belle Chasse, La. (2007 population: 7,934), and plunked him into the rabid shark tank that is the NFL.
It recalls the lyrics of Elton John’s iconic “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."
So goodbye yellow brick road / Where the dogs of society howl / You can’t plant me in your penthouse / I’m going back to my plough / Back to the howling old owl in the woods / Hunting the horny back toad / I’ve finally decided my future lies / Beyond the yellow brick road.
We raise our kids and instill in them this dream of becoming “rich and famous,” and encourage them from a young age to chase that ball—a little white one with dimples, the pigskin spheroid known as a football, perhaps a basketball or a soccer ball—and tell them it’s their way out of a life of poverty.
We tell them to “follow the yellow brick road” to that magical world that we think we know exists, even if we personally haven’t been there.
But that world is cruel, and has chewed up and spit out more Chris Henrys than any of us will ever know, or care to admit.
Then, when their discarded carcass is left twisting in the wind like chaff left behind from a thresher, who’s there to console the failed athlete and his or her family?
The media is the biggest blade in the machine, and cuts the deepest.
Just ask Tiger Woods.
Woods is not some unwitting victim; let me get that out of the way right now. Not in the sense that Henry was. Right now, Tiger is not acting like a very good human being.
But Eldrick had advantages that Chris Henry never did. Eldrick had Earl Woods, a wily, worldly, military man. Earl Woods sheltered his youngest (he had three older children, from a previous marriage, two boys and a girl, Cheyenne, who also became a competitive golfer) and molded him into one of the greatest golfers the world has ever known.
At the tender age of two, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was broadcast live to an amused, captive television audience, hitting golf balls with Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show, and by the age of three, shot a 48 over nine holes at the Navy Golf Club in Cypress, Calif.
I can’t shoot a 48 over nine holes today, and I’m 40.
Quick now, without thinking: What were you doing at age two? Age three?
If you’re anything like me, you were eating mud cakes (yes, I actually ate some of mine, didn’t you?), watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and getting into mischief when your mother’s back was turned.
Tiger Woods was becoming famous at the solitary sport of golf, where it’s just you, the course, a ball, and a scorecard.
Sounds like a recipe for a self-centered, hopelessly myopic life.
The only other force in that life was Earl Woods, who had lived all over the world, and seen anything this planet might have to offer—including women of all races, shapes, and forms.
Young Tiger learned much from his father Earl, including, I believe, how to cheat and get away with it.
Think about it: When Earl Woods excused himself at the country club to take a phone call, you don’t think Tiger, over time, figured out that wasn’t always mother Tida Woods on the other end?
You don’t think that this boy, who was molded with militaristic fervor from infancy to play golf, could tell when the twinkle in good ole daddy’s eye had nothing to do with familial affection, and had everything to do with carnal lust and infidelity?
It has been said that there was a time that Tiger virtually hated his father, because he could not bear the way Earl was cheating on Tida. There was a period of estrangement—the media at the time rather kept it hush-hush, but it is well documented now.
So let’s take Tiger Woods, who has idolized only Earl and golf from the age of two, and let’s put him on the yellow brick road to fame.
Let’s make him into the new, improved Orenthal James Simpson.
Simpson was so iconic that a 10-year-old Leroy Watson, Jr. knew “the Juice” from Hertz Rent-a-Car commercials, jumping over luggage in the airport.
And when I found out he played for the San Francisco 49ers, a team that had just drafted a Notre Dame prodigy by the name of Joe Montana, who had led a stirring comeback from a 34-12 third-quarter deficit to win the 1978 Cotton Bowl, 35-34...
Well, I had a team to slide into my No. 2 slot, behind the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers. When the Steel Curtain collapsed, and the Niners went on their incredible run, I switched allegiances.
Hey, I was a kid, okay? I remain a Niner fan to this day and I still consider the Steelers of that era to be the best team in NFL history.
Anyway, Madison Avenue and the media took O.J. and made him the biggest thing since sliced bread. It was a great story, too, because at first he could barely speak coherently. He was a child of the streets; football was all he knew.
But they pounded out the dents, polished the chassis, and propped him up as the ultimate crossover ad campaign. 30 years later, I clearly remember O.J. endorsing Florida orange juice, milk, Wheaties, and Hertz. That’s just off the top of my head.
For a time he co-hosted The NFL on NBC and did some commentary on Monday Night Football. (Not very well, I might add.)
He played a bit part in Roots, starred in several other movies, and even owned his own film production company, Orenthal Productions, which dealt mostly in made-for-TV fare.
We still feel the residual pulses from the collapse of that empire.
Woods would be different, though. He was fiercely intelligent, already well spoken, and obviously disciplined. The son of a military man, remember.
But he was also human. And all those solitary years of self-absorption and suppression eventually took their toll.
“There is no way any (internally flawed, as we all are) human being could have lived on the pedestal Eldrick Woods was placed on."
“When anyone reaches a position of excellence in their endeavor that also brings fame with it, be it sport, politics or acting, the pedestal is placed under them."
“But when that person slips off of the pedestal, the media will film every step, it will be all over at least one 24-hour 'news cycle' if not longer, and the media will tell itself it is giving its audience and readership what it wants.”
Why does this happen?
“For as we pour out our expectations, our dilemmas, and our constant frustration, we are denied our quest for perfection. Supremely gifted athletes are paid exorbitant salaries to perform for us and we cannot forgive a loss or worse yet an uncaring attitude…even at the amateur level."
“We feel compelled to criticize the man, his motives, and his methods—all for the sake of what?"
“Partially, we do it in order to appease disappointment in ourselves and in our lives. If we can reallocate our inadequacies to athletes we do not and cannot know, it alleviates our perceived sense of failure."
“If we can assign our loyalty, our enthusiasm, and even our love to a man or to a team, then we don’t have to locate or deal with these emotions in our real life. We subjugate our desires, we hide from commitment and we run like hell.”
“They cry freedom of the press in the other breath, but is stalking really journalism?"
“We won’t know these two, no matter how hard the media tries to capsulize [sic] their lives into a neat little package with a bow on top.”
Here’s the media’s dirty little secret; buy into it at your own risk:
When you’re on top of the world, they will make you into a demigod. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of articles will blow smoke up your bum, minimizing your failures and extolling your successes to a comedic degree.
But that’s just the setup for the fall.
Before you can say, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” let your human missteps and failings become public, and the media will portray you as evil, selfish, and two-faced.
Paparazzi will snap your picture leaving the toilet at Exxon, people will go through your trash, and your every location will be tracked on the Internet for junkies and psychotics to follow you.
And then, you go from the toast of the town to the butt of the joke.
You are the worst person to ever be a product pitchman.
How long is it before someone tells a cruel, off-color joke on late night television about Chris Henry and his plunge off the back of a moving pickup? Or has it already happened?
I wager you that right now, some cheating husband is getting caught, and he’s telling his wife, “Well honey, it was just one indiscretion. At least I didn’t pull a Tiger Woods and f*ck ___ women all over the world.”
Fill in the blank with whatever the latest convenient number is. Somewhere between 10 and 18, unless I haven’t kept up (not that I’m really trying).
One of the tragedies I take from the Woods and Henry affairs is that, as a society, we’ve got to stop using athletes as cure-alls.
If your favorite team wins a game, it doesn’t solve your problems, and if “your guy” is the hero today, you still have to pay your own mortgage tomorrow.
Conversely, when you get into a place where you feel like you can’t do anything right, I know how tempting it is to find someone else and play the “at least I’m better than him” game. And the more famous he is, well, the better you feel about yourself.
It’s easy to look at Chris Henry’s arrest record, his untimely death, and think, “At least I didn’t do all of that.”
It’s easy to say, “I will never be as arrogant, duplicitous, and entitled as Tiger Woods.”
And we might write an article about it, how terrible this guy is, and put it on the Internet for the world to see. When others agree, we’ll feel so good that we forget about our own failings for a fleeting moment.
But what of the children? I beg of you to think about this, the other tragedy in the wake of these seemingly disparate events.
Because, when researching a recent tennis article, I found a web page that was 15 years old, still hanging around on a server, and I was immersed in a treasure trove of information that kept me enthralled for hours.
In that amount of time Chris Henry and Tiger Woods’ children will all be teenagers, old enough to fully absorb every painful jab—whether rooted in truth or falsehood (many the latter)—thrown at their fathers’ legacies.
Would you be proud to look them in the eye and say, “I wrote that about your Daddy?”
How would you feel if it were your teen-aged children reading the exact same thing about you?
As writers, and as members on the cusp of the new media revolution, we have an obligation to ask and satisfactorily answer those questions before we press the “Publish” button.
I’m not here on a soapbox preaching “peace and love and understanding.” I’m not saying that we should excuse or even forgive Tiger Woods, nor am I minimizing Chris Henry’s past crimes and foibles.
I’m just suggesting that we all exercise a little common decency.
Is that too much to ask?