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Tiger Woods and the Masters of Rep

Tiger Woods and the Masters of Rep
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We say Tiger Woods. You think:
Highest-ranked golfer in the world?
Played 18 holes with Barack Obama on President’s Day?
Dating Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn?
Enjoyed an alleged backseat tryst with a waitress in a church parking lot?

Each would be accurate, but that last one—the morsel that, along with other dalliances, monopolized the media and tantalized the public for months in 2009 and 2010—is these days the least likely to come to mind. (Unless you happen to be Woods’ ex-wife.)

Three years later, after a divorce and the severing of sponsorship deals worth many millions of dollars, Woods is reclaiming his A-list standing. He scrubbed his seemingly unscrubbable public face enough to walk the links with the leader of the free world, and the only real criticism the outing generated was about the White House’s decision to prevent the media from tagging along. (Of course, his reformation didn’t go quite far enough to stop this New York Post headline after his rule infraction at the Masters: “Tiger Puts Balls In Wrong Place Again.”)

What are we, French?

Mais non, mes amis. Woods’ rebound is less a commentary on changing American mores than it is the latest lesson about the elasticity of that most valuable of assets: reputation. Companies of all sizes and types spend a great deal of time and money trying to control how the marketplace perceives them. And there are countless academic studies, white papers and consulting firms available to anyone interested.

But there’s a less nerdy, and definitely less pricey alternative: Read the sports pages. Although it’s clear most athletes shouldn’t be role models for kids, their experience with shame and fame provides adults with a simple, yet effective plan for rehabbing even the most squalid of reps. Let’s see what the experts have taught us.

Even offerings of penance at the confessional of Oprah rarely make up for failing to come clean when asked.

OWN UP ASAP. Arguably their most valuable lesson is the benefit of telling the truth, and telling it as early as possible. Exhibit A: Andy Pettitte. To baseball fans, the Harry Connick Jr. lookalike is a Yankees pitching stalwart, owner of five World Series rings and Major League Baseball’s all-time postseason wins leader. He also is a former steroids user, by his own admission. But who remembers that?

For whatever reason—conscience, instinct, professional advice—Pettitte came clean not long after he turned up in MLB’s internal investigation into performance-enhancing-drug use, short-circuiting the media’s impulses to ferret out specific wrongdoing. That left his standing in the hands of fans, most of whom didn’t care all that much about PEDs to begin with. It’s not the crime, as they say, it’s the cover-up.

In contrast, Pete Rose, the all-time MLB leader in hits, never used PEDs (that we know of), but he did take some 14 years to admit to gambling on his own team’s games. Rose was banned from baseball, and despite winning three World Series, making 17 All-Star teams and earning Rookie of the Year, MVP, and Gold Glove awards, the man known as Charlie Hustle is “permanently ineligible” for a spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame. His gambling was never shown to have affected his performance as either a manager or player, but his stubborn resistance allowed speculation, misinformation and opinion to frame his reputation. Recently, Rose tried to undo the damage with a reality show called Hits and Mrs. Did you catch it? Yeah, neither did we. Rose waited too long for anyone to care.

Even more conventional TV rehab efforts—we refer, of course, to the offering of penance at the Oprah confessional—rarely make up for failing to come clean when offered the chance, a lesson Lance Armstrong is in the process of learning.

BE AUTHENTIC. Not long ago, LeBron James was among the most resented of sports figures—the result of King James’ choice to televise his decision to abandon the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat and a subsequent rally with his new mates, at which they boasted of all the championships they would win together. Deserved or not, his reputation morphed quickly from fun-loving and talented superstar to arrogant and insensitive egomaniac.

James rebounded by showing his true dedication to the sport, if not to Cleveland. His decision to switch to the Florida team was about playing the best ball he could—and that’s not a bad thing. By living up to that and staying true to his brand values—hard play on the court, soft focus off it—James is once again respected, if not beloved, by most fans. He got a boost when a video of him celebrating a fan’s prize-winning half court shot went viral, but James’ reputational bounce back primarily reflects a confidence that reality does in fact trump perception over time if your story is positive, clear and consistent.

SEE THE HUMOR. In 1963, when television quiz show and college basketball point-shaving scandals were still fresh in the public’s mind and pro football was (believe it or not) struggling for broader appeal, Detroit Lions lineman Alex Karras was suspended for a year for placing bets on NFL games. Karras was saved from permanent ignominy in large part by his honesty, quickly admitting his transgression. But the big man was also served well by his sense of humor, which would be his calling card later in a career that included stints on Monday Night Football, the sitcom Webster and hit movies Blazing Saddles and Victor/Victoria. In his first post-suspension season, Karras refused when a referee asked him to call a pregame coin toss. “I’m sorry, sir,” Karras said. “I’m not permitted to gamble.”

More recently, acknowledged steroids user Jose Canseco has combined humor and honesty to build a post-MLB career that shows no signs of abating. After writing a bestselling and surprisingly candid tell-all (Juiced), Canseco became a staple of late-night and reality TV—not to mention celebrity boxing—by letting loose his genuinely gregarious and self-deprecating personality. Yes, he’s a bit of a punch line, but he’s also in on the joke. Consider, in contrast, the post-career posture of Canseco contemporary Barry Bonds, who has yet to publicly deal with what many contend is his all-but-certain PED past. He’s a virtual persona non grata everywhere but San Francisco.

PLAY THE MOM CARD. While Woods’ reputational comeback may have been confirmed by teeing up with POTUS, it was launched with support by an even greater power: mom. At a tightly scripted press conference televised 10 weeks after his sex scandal became public, Woods took full responsibility for his actions. His mother, Kultida, was seated in the front row. As awkward as it must have been to admit his sordid shenanigans in front of her—Lord knows it was awkward to watch—it was a tactical masterstroke, both humiliating and humanizing.

Maybe this will start a trend: When facing a congressional investigation or a bloodthirsty press conference, always have mom in tow—that is, as long as you also have an apology in hand.

Homepage photo credits:
Jose Canseco (Michael Buckner/Getty Images); Tiger Woods and President Obama (Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images); Lance and Oprah (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images); Pete Rose and wife (Donald Miralle/Bongarts/Getty Images); Andy Pettitte (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images); LeBron James (Keith Allison)

Additional photo credits:
Tiger Woods (Andrew Redington/Getty Images); Pete Rose (Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images); Lance Armstrong (JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images); Andy Pettitte (Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)

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About the author

Gary Belsky, former editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine and ESPNInsider.com, has teamed with Neil Fine, his former executive editor, to write humorous books on sports, including 23 Ways to Get to First Base. The two are currently consulting on corporate content strategy.

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