Compassion vs The Cynic


As mea culpas go, Tiger Woods’ odd 13 minutes at the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. podium last Friday covered a lot ground, from domestic abuse to performance-enhancing drugs to therapy.

Not exactly light reading even for a Stanford alum, so if Woods’ delivery seemed a bit scripted one should consider the content.

There is no playbook for public apologies, but if there were Ari Fleischer, the former White House press officer turned sports image healer, would have penned it. A request to Fleischer’s New York-based office for an interview was not returned, but there was a line on his Web site that seemed apropos: “Ari Fleischer Sports Communication can help you handle the bad news and take advantage of the good.”

First the good news, Woods said he will return to golf one day. And the bad, he’s not sure when that day will be.

Everything in between that buried lede is open for debate, dissection and double-guessing.

Woods is not the first public figure to run afoul of an adoring public, and a closer inspection of other mea culpas suggests that his apology was a success in form if not function.

Consider the public apologies issued former President Bill Clinton, Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant and Mark McGwire.

To be clear, the other mea culpas were results of broken laws (Bryant), broken league rules (McGwire and Rodriguez) and broken oaths of office (Clinton). Woods betrayed his wife and kids and no one else despite the incessant pleas from blog-dom. His crimes are of his own making, but he must answer only to himself and those closest to him.

As for McGwire, who enlisted the services of Fleischer last year when he finally decided to come clean, his apology was concise (463 words) and contrite with just a hint of an excuse, “I wish I had never played during the steroid era.”

We can only assume Barney Frank regrets living in the junk bond era, but that’s a different column.

McGwire closed his statement with a familiar theme in the public apologies we examined – a plea to friends and fans for forgiveness.

“I've always appreciated their support and I intend to earn it again,” McGwire said.

Rodriguez went with a personal touch, foregoing a release and instead sitting down with ESPN’s Peter Gammons in the wake of a Sports Illustrated story about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

A-Rod offered similar excuses – “When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure,” he said. – contrition, offering five “sorrys” in his first three sentences, and an appeal for forgiveness.

Woods followed a like path, from “good morning” to “thank you,” Woods’ mea culpa went about 1,500 words, included six “thank yous,” three “sorrys” – the same number of times, by the by, he used the word “private” – four “friends,” nine “Elins” and, perhaps most interesting, just two “golfs.”

If this was a step in a rehabilitation process, which many seem to think it was, than golf, rightfully so, is an afterthought.

Instead, Woods – like those who preceded him at that uncomfortable podium – fixed his steely glare on the future, but not before addressing the sordid reality of the present.

“It is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours.”

No, that line was not delivered by Woods on Friday, but one would be forgiven if those words were attributed to the world No. 1. Actually, that was part of Clinton’s four-minute speech delivered in 1998 in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Woods took a slightly more indignant road then the embattled Chief Executive, saying: “My behavior doesn't make it right for the media to follow my 2 1/2-year-old daughter to school and report the school's location.”

It’s an understandable plea but one that will be equally ignored. Sadly, it is the ugly cost of fame and untold fortunes whether Woods chooses to believe it or not.

In all cases, these mea culpas were humbling, particularly for men whose uber-confidence had likely driven them to distraction and destruction.

Dr. Phil calls it owning it, and it may have been the hardest part for all of the tarnished stars.

“I'm pretty tired of being stupid and selfish, you know, about myself. The truth needed to come out a long time ago,” Rodriguez told Gammons.

Woods’ reasoning was even more telling for a player who was once compared to Gandhi and Buddha by his father, Earl, an outrageously lofty claim that was always going to be a tough two-ball opponent for the young man.

“I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them,” Woods said.

Clinton, Rodriguez & Co. were not fresh from therapy when they made their public apologies, but the central theme of each speech and statement was the same – forgiveness.

Bryant’s appeal went directly to the woman he was accused of raping: “I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident. I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year.”

While Woods closed with an emotional: “Today I want to ask for your help. I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again.”

There are no report cards capable of grading these types of apologies. A cynic will dismiss the well-crafted statements as simply words, while the more compassionate will applaud the painful honestly. Either way you may disagree with the messenger, but not the message.