This is what I was thinking about when watching Tiger Woods carefully read from his prepared statement on Friday. Within minutes of him finishing, sports fans and countless pundits around the country and the world would be engaged in a detailed breakdown of the speech: What did it mean? What did he want it to mean? Was he sincere? Was he sincere enough? Was he sorry? Was he truly sorry? What does it mean to be sorry? Why did his voice sound as flat as a dial tone? Why did he use those weird hand gestures? Why didn't he speak from the heart? Was he speaking from the heart? What does any of that matter? Was he sorry? Was he truly sorry? When will he return to golf? When should he return to golf? Who was he hoping to win over? Why didn't he take questions? Why should he take questions? Why should he be sorry to anyone but his wife? Was he trying to overpower the Accenture tournament? Was the timing unavoidable because of his schedule? Didn't Accenture drop him as a spokesman? Was he sorry? Was he truly sorry? Who wrote this little speech? Did he sound angry? Was he angry? Where was Elin? Was he sorry? Was he truly sorry?
On and on and on... a million questions and comments and judgments about a 13-minute statement made by a brilliant golfer who cheated repeatedly on his wife.
The absurdity here is that this isn't absurd anymore. To be a sports fan in this new time, you need advanced insight into the maze of human frailty and a solid quartz sincerity-meter for the apologies that inevitably follow. How many sports apologies has it been in recent days? There's Mark McGwire, of course, Alex Rodriguez, Rick Pitino, Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, Roy Williams (for that weird Haiti exchange), Roger Clemens (for cheating, not steroids), Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, Vince Young, John Rocker, Randy Moss, Bob Knight (sort of), Mike Tyson (sort of), Tony La Russa, Latrell Sprewell, Steve Lyons, George Steinbrenner (for losing), Steve Phillips and, of course, Pete Rose, always Pete Rose, especially Pete Rose, apologizing without apologizing, apologizing while sort of apologizing, apologizing even while angrily insisting that he should not apologize because he has already apologized.
And there's Tiger Woods, the first apology that was ever boycotted by the Golf Writers Association of America. I don't blame the people from the GWAA for refusing to be background scenery in what was clearly meant to be little more than a Tiger Woods photo-op. However, it should be said that there is some absurdity here, too. Arnold Palmer is, perhaps, the most beloved golfer of the last 50 years. Arnold Palmer also had a well-known reputation as a ladies man in his day. Reporters, yes, reporters from the Golf Writers Association of America, often ran into Palmer with a woman on his arm, a woman who was not his wife, Winnie. They never reported it, and more so they never even THOUGHT about reporting it -- "It was none of our business," one of those writers told Ian O'Connor for his seminal golf book Arnie and Jack. Now, the golf writers insist that it is not enough for just a few of them to hear Tiger Woods apologize about his business; no, they insist that they must have more participation in the process and they insist that he must answer questions or they won't even listen. Yes, the rules have changed.*
*Palmer, on that subject, told Ian that his reputation was "more the talk than it was an action. It was a myth."
So, Tiger found himself walking through blue curtains into what seemed an airless room with a carefully selected audience, and he read words off a few pieces of paper, words that said he was sorry, that he had let himself believe that he was entitled to live a wild life, that there have been a lot of lies written and said, that he hopes after some time that people can yet again believe in him.
And then, like Olympic judges, we were left to rate his performance. On sincerity: 9.1. On emotion: 9.3. On artistic interpretation: 9.0. His technical score: 8.7. Oh, the Spanish judge really scored him low on that one.
How are we supposed to judge these apologies? I have no idea. I clearly have a fault barometer for sincerity. I thought that Alex Rodriguez's apology -- largely because he spent so much of it railing against the reporter who broke the story that he used steroids -- sounded thoroughly insincere, even though he wore a very sincere looking blue sweater (blue, I think, is the most sincere of colors). A lot of people disagree with me and despise that reporter, too. I thought that Mark McGwire's apology did seem sincere -- even though he refused to concede that steroids made him a great home run hitter -- perhaps because to me he did not seem to blame anyone else. Even more people disagree with me there.
Well, they may be right. I may be wrong. Or I may be right. They may be wrong. Or none of us are right. And none of us are wrong. That's where we are. One of the great thing about sports is that, if you can slow down the video enough, you will find that a runner is out or safe, crossed the plane of the end zone or didn't, got the shot off before the buzzer or did not. In sports, most of the time, almost all of the time, there's a winner and a loser, a right and a wrong, and few shades of gray. That's part of what makes sports so appealing.
Apologies, meanwhile, are all gray. I suspect that even the person apologizing is not entirely sure about the depth of his or her own sincerity. There's a great exchange in Robert Penn Warren's classic All the King's Men that delves into the pointlessness of trying to figure out what being sorry even means ...
"I'm sorry," I said.
"You're not, Jack," she said, "you're not sorry. Not really. You aren't ever sorry about anything. Or glad, either. You're just -- oh, I don't know what."
"I am sorry," I said.
"Oh, you just think you are sorry. Or glad. You aren't really."
"If you think you are sorry, who in the hell can tell you that you aren't?" I demanded...
"That sounds all right," she said, "but it isn't. I don't know why -- oh, yes I do -- if you've never been sorry or glad then you haven't got any way to know the next time whether you are or not."
"All right," I said, "but can I tell you this: Something is happening inside me which I choose to call sorry?"
"You can say it, but you don't know," she said.
In Tiger Woods' case, I'm not even sure why I'm supposed to be forgiving him. At least with A-Rod and McGwire and the various PED users and the law breakers, well, you could say that they misled the fans who were cheering for them. But this Tiger thing is different. I don't know his wife. I don't know these women that he cheated with. These aren't close and personal friends of mine. He never promised me that he would lead a chaste life. He never misled me. I may be surprised that he lived the way he lived, and it might lessen my opinion of him as a person (assuming I already had an opinion about him as a person) but all in all, I never really had any intention of asking Tiger Woods to babysit my kids.
So, I'm left judging only his apology performance, like he's auditioning for a part in my forgiveness play. And my verdict? Sure, I'd give him the part. It wasn't that I thought his words were especially moving or that his reading was especially stirring. I didn't. I thought the speech bounced all over the place. I never understood why he was angrily lecturing people for making assumptions about Elin hitting him when he had always refused to SAY what happened, leaving everyone only with a scene of busted car windows, a wife with a golf club, and Tiger himself lying on the ground. I understand that it's nobody's business. But you can't keep people from talking.
And I thought he looked robotic; his voice hummed. He seemed like one of those Animatronic U.S. Presidents at Magic Kingdom. I remember, years ago, when I was a paper boy, I got into a fight with one of my customers, who insisted that I had given him too little change. I was sure that he was trying to cheat me, and I said so. We argued for quite a while, and I got quite belligerent. Finally, the man shrugged and gave up. When I got home, we went over my collections and found that the man was right, I had cheated him. My parents made me go over to his house, return the money and apologize (while they watched). I did. And I remember my bland and empty voice sounded much like Tiger Woods' voice on Friday. I thought it was telling that Tiger Woods' mother was in the front row... his was the sort of apology that you give with a parent watching.
But, that said, I really WAS sorry that I had cheated the man, even if I did not sound it. And I suspect that Tiger Woods really is sorry for leading a selfish life. To me the most telling part of the whole thing was that, while most people thought Tiger Woods would announce his return to golf, he did not. That's something more than words. We all know how much breaking Jack Nicklaus' record means to him -- it's one of the few things that he was ever publicly emotional about. Now, he seems willing to give up much or all of this golf season to put his life in order. He seems determined to be a better person on and off the golf course (I thought it was interesting that he talked about treating the game with more respect). He seems like he has figured out what's important to him, which I think is a big first step in determining how you live your life. I respect that. It never is about what you say, anyway. It's how you live.
And, in the end, it's just not hard to forgive someone that you don't really know. I hope Tiger Woods becomes the person he wants to become. And, someday, I hope to once again watch him play golf so I can say out loud: "I cannot believe he's using a three-wood here." That sort of judgment is a lot more fun.