How Will Tiger Woods' Apology Affect His Image? A TIME Debate

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Quinn Rooney / Getty

Tiger Woods said he regrets his "trangressions" in a statement on his website on Dec. 2, 2009

Bill Saporito: I don't think he's going to lose very many endorsements. Sure, he has been revealed as a fraud, but Michael Jordan, another big sports fraud and the very role model for Tiger, is still selling underwear (in a commercial with Charlie Sheen!). Tiger is famous for going OB and then hitting spectacular recovery shots. Follow that metaphor ...

Romesh Ratnesar: I think there are a few differences. First, Jordan's gambling problems never quite percolated into the mainstream the way this scandal has. Second, the tabloid media and gossip machine are much more powerful today than they were then. Third, extramarital affairs are uniquely damaging — in particular, I think this will hurt his popularity with women. Fourth, he's a Stanford-educated golfer who supposedly did everything right. His image was premised on class, elegance, aspiration. He took flak just for being seen swearing on the course. I think this is going to be damaging, at least initially.

BS: Oh, I get it, this is a Stanford thing — it's really about the damage to your alma mater. Well, even Stanford guys aren't perfect (present company excepted, of course), but as you've noted, his image was about class and elegance. It's that image that has been shattered, sort of like the back window of his SUV, but maybe I'm pushing another metaphor too hard.

RR: It's not about Stanford. (Though I doubt he'll be invited back for many more ceremonial coin tosses anytime soon.) There are probably only two athletes in recent history who approached Tiger's global, iconic status: Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. But I think the social import of both Ali and Jordan was different from Tiger's, in part because of the sports they played. Boxing and basketball are populated with athletes from poor and working-class backgrounds. And over the past several decades, both sports have been dominated by African Americans. That's never been true of golf — it's still the preserve of whites, élites and the affluent. Tiger changed that, broadened the appeal of the game and brought it to a mass audience. But he did so playing by the same corporate, country-club rules. And so I think any personal transgression was going to hurt him more than it would hurt an Ali or a Jordan. What's amazing, to some extent, is that it's taken this long for him to slip.

BS: Let's not forget Pelé, another poor kid who became a global legend. No question that Tiger has revolutionized golf as a sporting event — you can see it in the television ratings. But by some respects, he'll only become a bigger attraction. Tiger's on the cover of People. He's now moving up in the Jon and Kate–Brad and Angelina celebrity solar system. You know what happens next: an appearance on Oprah with his wife Elin, national contrition. And even bigger ratings at his next tournament. Unless, of course, Mrs. Woods throws the bum out.

RR: You're right that public fascination with Tiger will be even more intense the next time he steps on the golf course or appears on Oprah. (Which won't happen until those "lacerations" fully heal.) It will be a ratings bonanza. But he'll never quite be what he once was. He won't be speaking at any more presidential inaugurations. And in some ways, I think this might put even more pressure on him to re-establish his dominance over the competition. His failure to win a major this year obviously didn't damage his place in our corporate-cultural pantheon. But the past week's events have knocked him off his pedestal. So what happens if he fails to win any more majors or even fails to break Jack Nicklaus' career record? Both of those possibilities may seem remote now, but if he stops performing at the level he once did, I think it's possible that our interest in him will fade.

BS: Lord help those PGA pros if Tiger takes his personal transgressions out on them. He has already demonstrated his considerable powers of concentration on the golf course while juggling his, um, complicated family life, which has included the birth of two children, the death of his father, major knee surgery and rebuilding his golf swing. He's still Tiger Woods. Not John Daly.

RR: Let's hope he and his family find their way through this. When all is said and done, Tiger's achievements have provided more than a decade's worth of inspiring, indelible images, and until now he has handled the glare of outsize fame and celebrity with decency. But maybe now he'll drop the imperious, impersonal façade and show his human side. That would be the best way to get fans rooting for him again.

Click to hear an alleged voicemail from Tiger Woods to a woman reported to be one of his girlfriends