Twenty-two years ago, long before there was Internet, Facebook or Twitter, Andre Agassi decided he didn’t want to talk to the media except in very controlled situations.
Agassi spoke to the media only in brief post-match news conferences that he was required to attend. He did do post-match TV interviews but only if he got the right interviewer: Cliff Drysdale yes; Mary Carillo, no because Carillo might ask a question that went beyond, “Wonderful playing today Andre.”
As luck would have it, I found myself sitting next to Bill Shelton, who was Agassi’s agent back then, on a flight home after the 1990 French Open. I had been very critical of Agassi on a number of issues (sound familiar?) and Shelton and I spent a large chunk of the trip across the Atlantic arguing. I give Shelton credit: if Mark Steinberg was ever seated next to me for a 7-hour plane trip my guess is he’d get off and take the next flight.
Naturally, I brought up Agassi’s unwillingness to speak to the media in anything but brief, highly-controlled encounters.
“He’s become a wealthy man because the public cares about him,” I said. “Doesn’t he owe the public more than a few tired clichés in post-match interviews?” (Sound familiar?)
It has always been my position that athletes and coaches owe the media nothing. But they do owe the public something and, for most of history, the media has been the public’s representative. To me the term ‘reporter,’ meant that it was my job to report back to readers – or, more recently listeners or viewers – what I had learned by talking to the athletes, coaches and the people around them.
When I made this point to Shelton, I vividly remember him shaking his head as if to say that I just didn’t get it – which I didn’t.
“We don’t need the media to communicate with the public,” he said. “We communicate with them through Andre’s commercials and sponsorships. That’s the message we want to get across.”
He was almost right. Agassi was wildly popular with tennis fans because the image he pieced together on TV and in his commercials was a lot different than the Agassi people saw when there were no cameras around. Even so, he and his handlers blew it badly when they agreed to have their man look into a camera and say, “Image is everything,” in a commercial for Canon. That notion – that Agassi was all image with no substance – followed him for years.
He had to plunge badly before he overcame that image, dropping to a 141st ranking in the world before he decided he didn’t want his legacy to be as a player who won one major when he should have won 10. Or eight – which is the number of majors he eventually won. Interestingly, Agassi became a much better player when he started opening up to the media, doing one-on-ones, even courting the media.
Coincidence? Probably. Nevertheless…
Fast-forward 22 years. As Shelton no doubt would have predicted, athletes are communicating with the public more in ways that give them complete control of the situation: websites, social media and the dreaded interview room where a moderator makes sure to cut off any follow-up questions that are unwanted.
Which brings us to the latest Tiger Woods attempt to let the media know exactly how he feels about them. Last weekend, Woods announced through Steinberg and PR man Glenn Greenspan that he was going to pass on his pre-tournament news conference and instead, field questions from fans on Twitter and Facebook. The explanation was that Woods wants to connect more directly with his fans and that he wants to use social media more than he has in the past.
There’s nothing that would prevent Woods from taking as many questions, “Hey Tiger what is it that you’re always drinking on the golf course?” – that wasn’t a corporate setup? – as he wants to take from fans. He could also still come to a pre-tournament news conference for 15 or 20 minutes if he wanted to.
That he doesn’t want to spend that time is neither surprising nor disappointing to those who cover golf. It means they won’t be required to write something about Woods saying he feels more comfortable with his new swing; he’s gaining confidence every week; he was disappointed at the Masters or that he can’t wait to play his new video game.
Make no mistake, Woods has never liked the media and never trusted anyone. In 2009 he told GolfWorld editor Jaime Diaz, someone he has known since he was 13, that he wasn’t going to do the end-of-year interview with Diaz that was written into his very lucrative contract. When Diaz asked why, Woods said, “because I’m just done with the media.”
This was before the fire hydrant. (He eventually did the interview after the magazine pointed out that it was in his contract, but Woods would only do it by phone). Since then, the relationship has only grown worse because Woods bristles every time he is asked a question that goes much beyond what he learned that day from Sean Foley.
What’s striking about the whole thing is that Steinberg and Greenspan have let Woods down. Steinberg made Hank Haney’s book into a No. 1 New York Times bestseller by lashing out at him instead of pretending that Woods couldn’t have cared less about the book. Greenspan spends half his life sending angry letters to various editors.
The two of them would help their boss a lot more if they would say something like, “Don’t call attention – again – to how much you hate the media by ducking harmless press conferences that are little more than free publicity for our sponsors.”
Of course they don’t do that. Whether they are scared of Woods or simply not smart enough to understand that Woods’ fellow players are now making jokes about him in the lockerroom, is hard to say.
Either way, none of it is good for Woods’ image – which is so vitally important to him as he tries to regain his footing in the corporate world. Andre Agassi learned the hard way that image is NOT everything. But it does matter – especially to Tiger Woods.