The Golfer and the President: On Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton




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I’ve written previously on this blog (and in print) about athlete apologia, using Pete Rose as my case study.  The events of the past week involving Tiger Woods present us with another athlete facing an image crisis, an athlete who is employing strategies of apologia in an effort at image repair. This, of course, does not make Tiger Woods unique as the sporting celebrity in crisis is such a well worn trope that it is nearly cliché. Off the top of my head, in 2009 alone we can point to figures practicing image repair as including Alex Rodriguez, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Manny Ramirez, Rick Pitino, and Elizabeth Lambert (and the list is no doubt considerably longer).


Communication scholars and public relations experts have developed instructional advice on these matters as well as a variety of measures of success. One of the first rules is to apologize quickly rather than to let the story or scandal build momentum. Other key considerations involve offering a full disclosure, being consistent in one’s statements, expressing contrition, and, when applicable, making amends.  In more technical terms Ware and Linkugel analyze apologetic discourse according to the strategies of denial, differentiation, bolstering, and transcendence. Benoit et al. break down the options somewhat differently (but stand in basic agreement), noting denial, evasion, reducing offensiveness, mortification, and correction as the available tactics.


With his statement on Wednesday (after his earlier expressed intention not to make a statement at all), Tiger Woods has begun his effort at image restoration.  Despite his desire for the statement to stand on its own, it is unlikely that Woods will be able to accomplish this goal. For one, the story continues to grow with allegations mounting. For another, Woods will at some point have to appear in public, presumably at a golf tournament or a press conference for a golf tournament. As much as he wants to avoid talking directly and in-person about these issues, it will be very difficult for him to avoid doing so without appearing evasive, defensive, and angry (and it may be equally difficult for him to talk about the issue without appearing the same way—and that will provide a true test of his image restoration success). 


So, what about that statement? In my quick reading of it, I didn’t so much of think of other athlete apologies as I thought about former president Bill Clinton and his August 17, 1998 statement on his relationship with Monica Lewinsky (to Woods’ benefit, his statement came only days after allegations arose while Clinton’s came nearly seven months after a vehement denial).  Of course that is understandable because Woods and Clinton are issuing apologies for transgressions that may be said to fit into the same “sub-genre.”  But beyond that I was struck by four compositional elements that the two statements shared:


- Each characterized the nature of their transgression (a word used by Woods) as a “personal failing.” In the fourth sentence of his statement, Woods says “I am dealing with my behavior and personal failings.” And in the eighth sentence of his address, Clinton said that his relationship with Lewinsky “constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure.” Of course both admissions are vague, but the surrounding context allows for their interpretation. And just as the months of media attention gave meaning to Clinton’s words, we can expect similar attention to expound on the meaning of what Woods has said.

- Second, both Woods and Clinton appeal to the ideograph “privacy” in asking that they be let alone. The concept of privacy, along with freedom, property, and a few others, holds powerful appeal in our culture. Clinton made six appeals to this concept, with perhaps the most powerful being his pronouncement that the matter “is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It’s nobody’s business but ours.” Similarly, Woods makes two appeals to privacy and three appeals to what is personal. Most similar to Clinton, Woods states that “the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one’s own family.

- Third, both connect the issue of privacy to family. It is one thing to claim there are ideas or actions we wish to not discuss, but to frame those actions within the context of (the sanctity of) family adds another powerful dimension, one that almost everyone can identify with. Woods explains that the issue is being addressed “behind closed doors”–i.e. in private—“with my family. Those feelings should be shared by us alone.” Again, similarly, Clinton said that the issue was between him and his family and announced his intention to “reclaim my family life for my family. It’s nobody’s business but ours.”

- Finally, the two efforts at image restoration share a common effort to locate external blame. While Clinton and Woods both say that they failed and claim to accept responsibility, they also both point toward other actors as the cause of their situations. For Clinton, the source or trouble was a “politically inspired” lawsuit and investigation. For Woods, the issue is “tabloid scrutiny.” In both cases the rhetor bolsters their case by charging that falsehoods are be
ing spread by their accusers. For Clinton that meant noting that he and his wife had been cleared of all charges of wrongdoing during years of investigation while Woods calls reports about his car accident “utterly false and malicious.”

- It may be that there are more differences than similarities between these efforts at image restoration, but at first glance they seem a close match to one another. Whether or not Clinton was successful is the matter of some debate—he was impeached, but he wasn’t removed from office. In his favor is that he was able to finish his term, his marriage is intact, and he seems to be as popular a figure as ever with the Lewinsky affair a lurid and lewd footnote on his presidency. For Tiger Woods the real work is just beginning. Will he retain his endorsements? Barring any particularly salacious revelations he likely will (unless in this economy a sponsor is looking to get out from under an expensive endorsement agreement). But what will really matter in terms of image recovery is how he does on the golf course—how he plays and how he acts. If he continues to succeed, if he is the same old Tiger, his efforts at apologia and image restoration likely will be seen as a success (regardless of whether or not those elements are actually connected). If he is less successful, if he loses his charismatic presence, or if he is caught in another scandal, then he will be deemed to have failed and he will face a longer road to recovery.

For further reading:

Ware, B. L., & Linkugel, W. A. (1973). They spoke in defense of themselves: On the generic criticism of apologia. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59, 273-283.

Benoit, W. L., & Brinson, S. L. (1994). AT&T “Apologies are not enough.” Communication Quarterly, 42, 75-88.

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