Tiger Woods and the Wages of Sin

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In retrospect, the headline over a Tiger Woods story in Forbes last June might have been a bit overstated: "Nothing can stop the Tiger Woods money machine," the headline rang out. Well, almost nothing could, until Tiger had to start paying the wages of sin.

Back in the early days of "Saturday Night Live," the character Father Guido Sarducci (aka the comedian Don Novello) tried to explain the wages of sin to a secular, consumer society. As Father Guido described it, we all accumulate a certain balance in our heavenly bank account ($14.50 for every day we live, though he never said if this was inflation-adjusted), but we suffer withdrawals when we misbehave. Father Guido purported to know exactly how much each transgression cost us. A stolen bag of potato chips was $6. Lying cost us $10. An embarrassing sexual act? Just 35 cents but, as the good father pointed out, it added up if you did it over and over again.

Now Tiger is discovering the cost of his transgressions, especially when you do them over and over again and get caught. According to Forbes, even though Tiger earned ‘just' $5 million on the tour in 2008 because he was sidelined with an injury, his endorsements alone amounted to more than $100 million that year. But unlike his tour earnings, which are dependent solely on his skill as a golfer, his endorsements came with an implied code of conduct which assumed at the very least that Woods' behavior wouldn't make him and those who sponsor him objects of derision on late-night television, and in the process render their marketing campaigns with him worthless.

Accenture has been paying Woods $7 million a year in endorsement fees but decided to bail out of its deal with Woods because the firm understood that the whole campaign constructed around the signature line "Be a Tiger" was hopelessly compromised by the long list of Wood's extra-marital excursions. Other sponsors, like Gatorade, have put new Tiger-themed product development on hold, while Gillette pulled its Tiger ads for now.

Although I have heard many defenses of Tiger (mostly on sports radio shows) which begin with the notion that his personal life is none of our business, when you generate $100 million a year in image-based endorsements, what people think matters. And the polls show a startling plunge in his favorable ratings, from more than 90 percent a few weeks ago to about 45 percent now. That puts Woods in the company of many politicians, which is not exactly a place where a sponsor paying seven figures for an endorsement wants to be (although in fairness to Tiger his favorables are still higher than Congress').

I suspect that Woods' standing among married women is especially plunging, at least in part from sympathy with the plight of his wife and a worry about the future of his children. But there is also a latent but powerful anxiety among women (and some men) in our society about the significant consequences-both emotional and economic--of family breakup, especially among those who lived as children through the worst effects of the marriage meltdown that began in the 1960s and 1970s. As the Manhattan Institute's Kay Hymowitz observed several years ago, when a pollster asked Americans between the ages of 18 to 30 what experience had shaped their generation, "the most common answer was divorce and single-parent families."

The economic consequences alone are powerful. Except among the very rich, like Woods and his wife, family breakup almost always involves a decline in the standard of living of both ex-spouses and their children. At its most extreme, family disintegration is a road to poverty in America, where two-thirds of all impoverished children live in single-parent households. One way of looking at the notion of ‘two Americas,' in fact, is to consider one America to be the world of celebrity athletes and Hollywood types and financial masters of the universe who have the fiscal means to survive their personal peccadilloes, and the other America to be the rest of us for whom the economic cost of a personal life as messy as Tiger's is often financial ruin for ourselves and our family.

This is where the wages of sin (to continue with that old-fashioned term) become real and consequential, and why sponsors can't merely dismiss Tiger's actions with the notion that ‘boys will be boys,' or that it's none of our business. It's why, instead, the sponsors in these cases head for the hills when Woods gives them all the cover they need by announcing he is taking some time from golf to rebuild his family relationships. Although some cynics see this as merely an attempt to resuscitate his reputation and hence endorsements, I suspect that Woods could play the next three years on the tour in sackcloth and ashes and still not revive his marketing fortunes.

Lurking below the surface of the Tiger Woods affair is more than just our fascination with the rich and powerful, more than just our love of water-cooler gossip. Lurking way below the surface is a painful conversation we rarely have in public about the steep social and economic costs of family collapse and the anxieties that a life as messy as Tiger's breed.

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