Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Oratory of Overreaction

The old saying goes that all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten.

Be nice and respectful to others. Be considerate. Be honest. Be ready to go when the light turns green and there are people behind you who have no interest in waiting for you to fix your makeup or send that text message.

(Okay, so maybe they don’t teach that last one, but here’s a motion to have it added to the curriculum…it’s never too early to learn how to be a tolerable driver.)

But a quick scan of the sports landscape shows that many of its main characters were apparently too busy drinking juice boxes and pulling pigtails to absorb any of these lasting life lessons. From the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program to Bobby Petrino’s Sunday motorcycle rides, there’s a never-ending parade of people treating others poorly and doing big things badly.

And there’s no better example of this than Tiger Woods.

His story is obviously well-known at this point. Once everybody’s All-American, Woods was seemingly the impossibly perfect package, with a spectacular skill set and an infectious, incandescent smile.  He was a lock to be the greatest player ever, and it was a foregone conclusion that he’d break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional major titles.

Then we found out that his affinity for Perkin’s hostesses was stronger than his commitment to his wife, and everything changed. Having calculatingly sold himself as the clean, wholesome family man, he was exposed as the exact opposite.

That his game suffered in the aftermath only made matters worse. Little things that had always been brushed off as the cost of greatness – icy divorces from his swing coaches (Butch Harmon and Hank Haney), abrupt separations from his caddies (“Fluff” Cowan and Steve Williams), drop-kicked seven irons after poor shots – were now pieces of an unlikable puzzle that could no longer be masked by his other-worldly performance. He had transformed himself into the villain whom everybody wanted to root against, myself included.

And that’s why it’s so hard for me to confess to this recent turn of events:

I’ve now become his biggest fan.

Honestly, I never would’ve predicted this could happen, not even prior to the infamous “Fire Hydrant Thanksgiving.” While I’ve always been in awe of Tiger, I’ve considered myself more of a Mickelson guy, and only partly because of the frequent camera shots of his wife, Amy, whenever he gets in contention. But when news of Woods’ scandal broke, I was both dejected and disappointed. The adultery, the lying, the consequences for his family…that was all bad enough, but as a devoted golfer, there was something more to it for me, something much deeper. The game itself is built on a foundation of character, honor and integrity, and it was a shame that one of its greatest players could so completely miss out on its message. I was convinced I’d never be able to look at Woods again and not see his scarlet letter. 

But in the last few months, my view on Tiger has been undergoing a steady shift. And that shift has been in direct response to the pessimistic dialogue that’s been swirling around him within the sports talk universe.

As his lack of wins and generally un-Tiger like results have been piling up, so has the criticism. You can’t turn on a telecast without hearing somebody tear Woods apart in every way imaginable, from the changes in his swing to his emotional and mental makeup. Analysts act as if they’re inside his head, like they know what he’s thinking and feeling. They all claim to be certain about what he’s doing wrong and what he should do to fix it, and they mock him as delusional when he says he’s getting close after finishing tied for 40th. They say he’s lost, and that he’ll probably never find his way back.

They say that he’s done.

Even after he won a couple of weeks ago, his victory was dismissed as little more than a random blip on the heart monitor. It was just a regular tour event, they said, and Tiger’s career is only about winning majors, so nothing will matter until he wins one of those again.

Hearing this blather week after week has made my head hurt. I mean, doesn’t anyone remember how great this guy was? That he’s got 14 major titles? That he was far and away the best player on the planet for over a decade? That he’s undergone two previous swing overhauls and come out the other side as dominant as ever? And what about how he’s responded to adversity in the past? The man won a U.S. Open on a broken leg. How can anyone just write him off so definitively?

This type of impulsive, impetuous commentary shouldn’t really have come as a surprise, though. After all, we live in an impatient, reactionary world, where we love nothing more than to draw generalized, no-doubt-about-it conclusions based solely on whatever it was we just saw. “What have you done for me lately?” rules the day. There’s no room for perspective, and there’s no respect for the big picture.  

And unless you’re talking about the best-selling book you wish you hadn’t witnessed your mother purchasing, there are absolutely no shades of grey.

You see this irrational, know-it-all attitude in every aspect of life, from the economy to politics, but it’s especially prominent in sports. Beyond the fact that sports are this illogical, emotionally charged vortex where fully grown adults live and die with results they have no hand in determining, there’s also a scoreboard that tells us explicitly who won and who lost, who is good and who is bad. This makes it convenient to latch onto the laziest, most unsophisticated storyline and run with it.

Sports history is filled with countless athletes and coaches who, at some point, were prematurely painted by critics as not having what it takes. Peyton Manning. Mack Brown. Phil Mickelson. None of them were considered good enough or tough enough to win big – and then they did.

The prime example of this shortsighted phenomenon right now is LeBron James. Arguably the greatest basketball player in the world, James has had a brilliant career to this point. He’s been the league’s leading scorer, he’s made the All-NBA first team six times and he’s claimed three Most Valuable Player awards. Last year, he led the Heat to the Finals and to within two wins of a championship. This season, he’s carried Miami back to the brink of a title, often without the help of one of his most important teammates, the injured Chris Bosh.

But you wouldn’t think any of that were true, or that any of that mattered, if you listen to the overly negative narrative that follows him around. All you’d hear about is what he hasn’t done – most notably, win a ring – and how he doesn’t have what it takes to get that accomplished. It’s irrelevant how great he’s been or how close he’s come or how, with another opportunity or two, the ball might finally bounce his way. Apparently, if you haven’t done something, that means you can’t do it, nor will you ever be able to do it. 

So until LeBron hoists that trophy, be it in two weeks or two years, that critical scrutiny will continue.

It’s the same thing with Tiger. Strange as it seems, his pre-scandal resume may as well have been assembled by an entirely different player. All that matters to the masses now is what’s happened since then – a two-and-a-half year sample size largely filled with no major victories, injuries, middle-of-the-pack finishes and a handful of rarely-before-seen Sunday failures. 

Nobody seems to care that there have been signs of life, that he appears to be trending in the right direction. Nobody cares that he’s already won two prestigious events this year, or that he’s back up to fourth in the World Golf Rankings. Nobody cares that he’s seventh on tour in the Greens in Regulation statistic, first in Total Driving and third in (adjusted) scoring average. They’d rather bash him, erroneously evaluate his swing changes (if you’re a golf nerd like I am, check out these videos here, here and here to see why many of the so-called experts are flat out wrong in their critique of his swing) and confidently dismiss the notion that he’ll ever get back on top.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying it’s inevitable that Tiger will regain his form, or that he’ll eventually break Nicklaus’ record. It could legitimately play out a million different ways. There were no guarantees he’d do it before he ever drove into that fire hydrant, and now he’s got to carry the weight of that challenge on a beaten up, battered psyche that’s taken almost as much pounding as his reconstructed left knee. Add to the mix a putter that’s not quite as magical – and if there’s one area where the Karma Gods may hold a grudge, it’s putting – and there are genuine reasons for doubt.

What I am saying, though, is that I ultimately have no idea what’s going to happen – and neither does anybody else.

And that’s why when the U.S. Open tees off tomorrow, I’m going to be pulling for Woods to pull through, although it won’t be because I like him, and it won’t be because I’ve forgotten about his sins. I’m not rooting for Tiger, the man, inasmuch as I’m rooting for what a Tiger victory would prove – that there’s value in patience and perspective, that not everything is as simple as black and white, that it pays to let things play out before passing judgment, and that maybe the irrational, loudmouthed detractors aren’t quite as smart and prophetic as they think they are.

The rub, of course, is that if Woods does win, the pendulum will immediately swing to the other extreme. The headlines will blare to the world that Tiger’s back, the critics will boast “I told you so” with their hindsight analysis, and I’ll be left screaming at my car radio to try to make it all stop, crazily convinced that this same reaction I’ve had over and over will somehow lead to a different result.

I guess I was absent the day in kindergarten when they taught us the definition of insanity.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?