A veteran sportswriter recently told me one of his favorite Mickey Mantle stories, which involved a blonde movie goddess of the 1950s best known for her roles in Frank Sinatra vehicles and in a Hitchcock thriller with James Stewart. Mickey and the blonde were guesting on a popular variety show, and the sportswriter was curious as to how the two had gotten along. “I hear she’s frigid,” said the scribe to The Mick. “Not with me,” replied Mickey with a grin.
Mickey Mantle was perhaps the most notorious womanizer in professional sports in the 1950s. “I’ve been muff diving for so long I’ve forgotten how to fuck,” was one of his favorite lines.
Mantle was actually in a long line of sports heroes whose antics were legendary among members of the sports press in the fifties and sixties. Babe Ruth was probably the most outrageous, but buy a drink for any sportswriter you know who wrote from 1940 on and hear tale after glorious tale about the exploits of Joe Louis, Leo Durocher (who loved to regale writers with stories on how he cheated on his wife, actress Laraine Day), Paul Hornung, Muhammad Ali, and Wilt Chamberlain, to name just a few of the most prolific mythmakers.
So I have a question. Exactly what did Tiger Woods do that scores of athletes before him didn’t also do, and why are we pretending that his behavior is anything new?
“What this scandal has belatedly taught us,” writes Alan Shipnuck in this week’s Sports Illustrated, “is that despite all the trappings of an adult life, Tiger had never really grown up.”
Alan Shipnuck is an excellent golf writer; is it possible that he could have spent years around professional golfers and not know that they are all basically spoiled brats? Who does not know that this is true of all pro athletes and, for that matter, of most high school and college athletes as well.
Is there anyone who has written about organized sports who doesn’t know the truth of Bill Russell’s famous statement, namely that “They’ve all been on scholarships since the eighth grade.” Can any experienced sportswriter pretend that he or she doesn’t know that what San Francisco writer Glenn Dickey once said of Willie Mays — “He sheds his greatness like a cloak when he leaves the playing field” — is true of just about all athletes?
From where has this massive hypocrisy come that Tiger Woods’s off-the-links behavior is any different from any other pro athlete’s or that he has done something that he needs to make a public apology for — or that we need to forgive him for? Yes, I know that the apology was really for sponsors so they will once again ask him to endorse their products, but why are so many in the press acting as if the whole sham was anything more than that?
A large part of the sports press’s indignation, I think, is that they weren’t the ones who broke the story. A story widely gossiped about for some time is that Woods agreed to do a cover story for Men’s Fitness after someone from the magazine’s publisher promised not to divulge certain revelations about Tiger’s personal life. I believe this story is true, particularly after one of its contributing editors told me where he had heard the juicy details: “From the supermarket tabloids, and everything they said proved to be true.”
There’s another reason for the sports press’s new-found contempt of Tiger Woods: he doesn’t need them. That’s what they all mean when they talk about “The Tiger Rules,” that Woods has always controlled the way they wrote about him. If they didn’t comply, they were denied access, much the way the celebrity press has always kissed butt for actors such as Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise. Writers who didn’t agree in advance to play by the rules didn’t get an interview; if they violated the rules, they were out of the game. (I learned that in the late 1980s when I did my first and only feature for the late Premiere magazine and dared reveal an on-set squabble between the film’s director and producer. The magazine apologized, but I was blackballed.)
The sports press didn’t break the Tiger Woods story. The mainstream and celebrity media — and anyone who watches CNN these days can tell you that there’s practically no difference — did. The zeal and phony outages which sportswriters have exhibited in pretending they think there’s something wrong with Tiger Woods’s sex life is in direct proportion to the frustration they’ve had in gaining access to Woods over the years. Unlike Babe and Mickey, Tiger has never slammed them down in the bar with the press boys after hours. If he had shared the stories of his conquests, they probably would have been on his side.
I don’t know how many of you felt liberated by Woods’s apology last week. Speaking for myself, I’d have had more respect for him if he had simply invited an auditorium full of sportswriters and told them “What I say to my wife is our business, and what I do in my own time is none of yours. You can all go fuck yourselves and bust your nuts trying to find an audience writing about anyone in golf but me.” but I’m betting Nike would not have approved.