Last weekend on Saturday Night Live, NBC drove Tiger Woods hard. In a skit, faux Tiger and wife Elin held a press conference, which got interrupted after a surprised Elin heard Tiger admit he had made "multiple transgressions." The shot cut away, but then Tiger returned, arm in a sling, claiming that he accidentally fell down a flight of stairs and "launched [himself] through a plate-glass window." The audience chuckled. In the Weekend Update segment, Seth Meyers teed Tiger up, noting that his sponsors were sticking with him, "a gesture that only means one thing women don't watch golf."
But the following afternoon, during NBC's telecast of the Chevron World Challenge, a golf tournament that raises money for Woods' foundation, it was: Tiger who? At the top of the program, NBC anchor Dan Hicks read a statement from Woods, who skipped the tournament, officially because of injuries sustained during his mysterious car crash. The statement thanked Woods' sponsors, and the infamous word transgressions was never uttered, not even once. The cameras then tailed the likes of Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell around the course, the unacknowledged elephant squatting on every tee, blanketing every bunker shot. Awkward.
As the scandal over Tiger Woods' alleged multiple affairs keeps expanding, NBC's experience that afternoon underscores the tricky lie in which the networks that broadcast golf now find themselves. No single athlete has the power to propel, or derail, his sport more than Woods. He's the meal ticket, the key to big ratings, and it's in each network's interest to stay in Woods' good graces whatever that means.
Granted, no one has ever mistaken sports programming for 60 Minutes. But sportscasters still owe us an honest minute or two to dissect the golf story of the year, if not the decade. Especially when the story is exploding, and you are stuck with the somewhat sad irony of the Woods saga's unfolding during the same week as his charity tournament.
The Golf Channel, whose very existence can be credited to Woods, is similarly skirting the issue. "We had news reporters all over the place on Friday [Nov. 27, the day when Woods' car accident went public] and Saturday and Sunday and Monday," says Tom Stathakes, programming chief for the Golf Channel. "But I'm not in the business of talking about 10 of Tiger's girlfriends."
But as the number of Woods' alleged paramours reaches double digits, doesn't this potentially reckless behavior become news? Can you ignore the sensational story rocking your game with a straight face? Woods' sponsors aren't completely looking the other way. According to Nielsen Co., no Woods ads have aired since shortly after the scandal broke. And Pepsi announced that it would drop a Gatorade drink that pays homage to Woods, though the company insists the move was planned before the scandal arose.
TIME asked the three networks that broadcast major golf events NBC, CBS and ABC/ESPN to talk about how they have handled the issue. Why did NBC pretty much ignore the scandal last weekend? Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, offered only this pabulum: "We said what we thought was appropriate to be said given the continuing tabloid nature of the story. We were there to cover a golfing competition. I'm certain there will be a much clearer set of established facts when our PGA Tour coverage resumes next year." CBS will broadcast what some golf pundits expect to be Woods' first event since the car incident, the San Diego Open, Jan. 30-31. The network refused to comment.
Mike Tirico, lead golf announcer for ABC/ESPN, said, "The person putting on the TV is coming to watch golf. They're not coming for TMZ or Entertainment Tonight. I've heard people say, 'I don't want to hear that. We came to watch the game. If we want that other stuff, we'll go watch SportsCenter or read about it online.' Dwelling on it for two hours, when it's not impacting the competition, wouldn't make much sense."
Woods' absence does change the competition, though. Without him in the field, guys like Bo Van Pelt can win tournaments. Quietly. Woods touches everything in golf. Tirico described the ratings disparity between events Woods plans and those he skips as "frightening."
Tirico insisted that, at ESPN, the debate about how much news to cover is often fierce. But he clearly leans toward steering clear of the messiness. "Very often, people come to sporting events to get away from all the other stuff," he said. "So you kind of owe them complete coverage of that event."
Fair enough. But if you're going to be comprehensive, you can't ignore or just give short shrift to the scandal. Especially during the first few tournaments of 2010, and during whatever event in which Woods will make his return. You may not hear about Woods' transgressions from the organizations that bring you golf on Sunday afternoons. But the TV suits will be sweating, and the entire situation will be uncomfortable, on every hole along the way.