We love people who ask for our forgiveness, especially when they sound sincere.
"I had affairs. I cheated," said Tiger Woods, treading the same well-worn path as Eliot Spitzer, David Letterman, Jimmy Swaggart and countless others before him. The man who never loses his composure looked as if he'd rather be anywhere else. "What I did is not acceptable. And I am the only person to blame."
It was an artful blend of humility and message management. He didn't say when he might return to golf. That was wise. His message was that his wife and family come first for him now. But before he can get right with them, he's got a lot more therapy to do.
In the olden days, sinners would repent by weeping, fasting and donning sackcloth and ashes. Now, they apologize to their wives in front of a billion people, and vow to seek professional help. The road to redemption goes through rehab.
The public can relate to this, because millions of ordinary people have been in therapy themselves. They turn to therapy, not prayer, as a way to get them through life's traumas, such as cheating. The priest and the minister have been supplanted by the therapist, and the prayer group by the 12 Step meeting.
"I've learned to seek support from my peers in therapy and I hope some day to return that support to others who are seeking help," said Tiger, sounding humble. He certainly displayed a lot of insight into his behaviour and a sincere desire to change. Or a least his speechwriter did.
He also insisted that his wife, Elin, had never whacked him with a golf club, or anything else. She is a saint from heaven, and the media should leave his wife and kids alone. Then he hugged his mother. That was smart.
The sexes are divided over Tiger's confessional. Women - who tend to believe in the healing power of therapy far more than men do - were generally inclined to forgive him. The men, not so much. They accused him of controlling the message and refusing to take questions from reporters. "Only rich guys go to therapy for sex addiction," groused one Chicago trader. "Everybody else gets hit in the head with a frying pan."
In truth, Tiger isn't really suffering from sex addiction - or hypersexual disorder, as it's more formally known. Sex addiction is supposedly rooted in depression, anxiety or stress, and the men who have it tend to be middle-aged losers hooked on Internet porn and dirty chat. Tiger did not have a problem with depression, anxiety or stress. And his sex habits were no different from those of countless rich and famous athletes, movie stars, talk-show hosts or Bill Clinton. Life was a banquet of sexual opportunity, and he ate his fill. There's not the slightest shred of evidence that he felt any guilt or remorse for his behaviour - until he got caught.
His real problem was narcissism. "Normal rules didn't apply," he said. "I felt I was entitled." That's not so terribly unusual. Narcissism is the most common personality disorder in society today.
But Tiger Woods didn't get to be the biggest celebrity endorser in the world for being like us. He got there because he was a hero - clean-cut, controlled and supernaturally gifted. When his private life turned out to be 180 degrees different from his public image, it was the biggest tabloid story in the world since Diana. He turned toxic overnight.
At Accenture, the big consulting company that had invested hundreds of millions to use him as its public face, he became a non-person. Employees around the world were told to tear down all the posters of him (especially the ones that said, "We know what it takes to be a Tiger") and scrub him from the website. "Tiger Woods just wasn't a metaphor for high performance any more," a spokesman told The New York Times.
"I wish Tiger Woods would just say I'm a kajilionaire, what did you expect? Now let's just go play golf," tweeted one impatient fan. But modern celebrity doesn't work that way. To win back fans - and sponsors - you've got to humble yourself and pretend to be no better than anyone else. "Admit, apologize, advance," as the damage-control experts like to say.
"I have a long way to go," said Tiger. "I need to regain my balance and be centred." (Translation: No more fooling around. Not now. Not later. Not ever.) He knows he'll have to stay in the woodshed for a while before we let him back. Let's just hope the poor guy doesn't have to go on Oprah.