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TIGER'S MORAL HAZARD - Opinionator Blog - NYTimes.com
By ROBERT WRIGHT
“There are so many young boys you influence.”
“That’s right,” said Roy.
“You’ve got to give them your best.”
“I try to do that.”
“I mean as a man too.”
— “The Natural,” by Bernard Malamud
When Tiger Woods tees up his Nike golf ball at the first hole of the Masters next week, will you be wishing him well? Or will you hope he yanks his drive into the pines and spends four days trudging toward the searing defeat that, in your view, he richly deserves?
Be honest. This is a moral litmus test. In fact, it’s a test for all of America — a test of where our moral consciousness is these days.
As befits a pronouncement as grand — even grandiose — as the previous sentence, I’ll illustrate it via literary allusion.
Ten years ago, writing in Slate, I noted with mild alarm an eerie parallel between Woods and Roy Hobbs, the baseball player at the center of Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel “The Natural.” Woods had just said his goal was to be the greatest who ever played the game, and I observed that in Malamud’s story an utterance very much like this precedes the character’s downfall.
I had no idea how faithfully life would imitate art. Woods’s downfall did come, and it came for much the same reason as Hobbs’s downfall. Now the question facing Woods is whether his story will end like Malamud’s novel or like the Hollywood version of the story, the movie that starred Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs.
At the outset of the story, Hobbs is a young slugger with preternatural skill who is headed for stardom when he encounters a seductive young woman named Harriet Bird. She asks him about his ambitions. Eager to impress her — he already has sex on his mind — he says, “Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game.”
She finds his answer disappointing, and when he adds that he may make a lot of money, too, she remains unimpressed. She asks, “Isn’t there something over and above earthly things — some more glorious meaning to one’s life and activities?”
Next thing you know, she has lured him to a hotel room, presumably for a tryst. But, as he gazes at her figure through a translucent negligee, she starts mocking his aspiration to greatness and then pulls out a gun and shoots him.
Hobbs is now where Tiger Woods is. His career is on hold, and where it goes next will depend on whether he has learned his lesson. Harriet Bird has delivered the lesson in surreal, mythic form, and life will now offer Hobbs the chance to show that he grasps it.
There’s a difference between wanting to be the best and wanting to be known as the best, wanting to reap the rewards of renown.
What is the lesson? Woods gave his answer to that question during his televised confession six weeks ago, while talking about his Buddhist upbringing. “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.”
Yes, it’s safe to say that Woods has shown poor impulse control. But Buddhist scripture — and its ancestor, Hindu scripture — puts a finer point on the matter. When you pursue great things — great golf, great art, whatever — you shouldn’t do it because of the rewards: the acclaim, the adulation, the sex. There’s a difference between wanting to be the best and wanting to be known as the best, wanting to reap the rewards of renown. “The fruits of action,” as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, are emphatically not the point of action.
I’m not saying any mortal could passionately pursue excellence while wholly abandoning the quest for acclaim and its benefits. But I am saying that virtue involves trying.
In Malamud’s novel, Roy Hobbs doesn’t make much progress on this front. He gets to the big leagues and acquires superstar status but can’t stop indulging his animal appetites. (I assume “The Natural” is a double-entendre.) Malamud conveys Roy’s excess with comically exaggerated scenes of performance-sapping overeating, and Roy shows no more restraint in his sexual appetite. He continues to evince an unerring instinct for the wrong woman, notably a beautiful, materialistic blonde who is drawing him toward corruption.
In the movie version things work out fine. Roy (Redford) resists the lure of this femme fatale (Kim Basinger), falling instead under the spell of a wholesome-looking woman with a tendency to wear white (Glenn Close) — who, very roughly speaking, is Elin Woods. By staying true to her, Roy ends his career on a heroic note, and the movie closes with a scene of familial bliss: a retired Roy teaching the game to his son. Redemption is his.
In the book, not so much. The Kim Basinger character lures Roy into complicity with gamblers, and his attempt to escape their grip comes too late. His sordid life is revealed in the newspapers, along with the punishment: he will be banned from the game, and all his records will be expunged from the annals of baseball. Apparently if you want to be the greatest just so that you’ll be known as the greatest — and enjoy the fruits of fame — the punishment is that you won’t be known as the greatest.
I’m of course not talking about real life. In real life Tiger Woods was known as the greatest while basking licentiously in that reputation, and he may well repeat this performance. But the point of an old-fashioned morality play is to send a message about karmic justice, and Malamud’s novel sends a harsh one.
That the movie version doesn’t is, presumably, a reflection of Hollywood’s preference for happy endings. At the same time, the two endings are also reflections of their respective times.
Malamud was writing in a pretty Calvinistic America. Back then if you were playing a word-association game and someone said “sin,” you were at least as likely to think “damnation” as “forgiveness.”
Does redemption that comes without major atonement send a message that transgression is no big deal?
By the time the movie version came out in 1984, things had changed. That year Oprah Winfrey first appeared on the program that would soon be renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and would become such a showcase for redemption that, when Tiger Woods had his fall, people started counting the days until the seemingly inevitable Oprah cleansing ritual.
Is Oprah’s America a weaker America? Does redemption that comes easily, without major atonement, send a message that transgression is no big deal, and wind up encouraging self-destruction?
Whatever your answer to that question, Tiger Woods is exhibit A, for he has chosen the path of low atonement.
True, he’s taken a hit in income. (He’ll probably be down in the low eight figures this year.) And he’s said he’s sorry. (Good thinking!) But his great goal — and the key to being known as the greatest golfer ever — is to chalk up five more career victories in the four major golf tournaments, thus breaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. If he had waited until after the Masters for his return, he’d be skipping a chance to put one of those notches in his belt.
That’s a modest price (he’d still have 25 or so majors left during his prime), but it’s a price in the currency he values most. And unlike the price he’s paid in lost endorsement money, it would be voluntarily incurred.
But he’s refused to pay it, and this hubris is one thing that makes it tempting to root for his failure. (I’m trying to resist that temptation; I was raised a southern Baptist, and that has left me with a moralistic streak as formidable as Woods’s libido. His story is a rehab opportunity for both of us.)
Of course, you could also root against Woods for less reflexive reasons. He has turned his life into a real-life morality play, and maybe it would be better for his young fans if his story ended badly — if, having shown no real atonement, he was forced to pay a steeper price: never breaking Nicklaus’s record. That would be a lesson to remember.
In any event, that was the tone Bernard Malamud chose. The final piece of dialogue in the book harkens back to the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919, when a young fan is said to have pleaded to a fallen star, Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” A boy hands Roy Hobbs a newspaper reporting his wrongdoing and his banishment from baseball and says, “Say it ain’t true, Roy.”
Malamud ends the book with this passage: “When Roy looked into the boy’s eyes he wanted to say it wasn’t but couldn’t, and he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears.” Apparently, there will be no redemption for the great one.
But that was then.
[Wright's]Postscript: The Slate column in which I first compared Woods to Roy Hobbs is here. I also wrote an earlier Opinionator column suggesting that the new technologies of transparency may make upstanding — or even seemingly upstanding — role models an endangered species. And, finally, here I have a video dialogue with the blogger Ann Althouse on some of the questions I address in the above column — Tiger as role model, Oprah as arbiter of redemption, etc.
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