“Everyone – no matter how famous they might be – deserves at least some domain away from the searing glare of the public eye…We shouldn’t sanctify morbid curiosity by deeming it legitimate for the public to know Woods’ secrets. Although many are curious about what he has done behind closed doors, society should respect his right to keep his doors shut.”
George Washington University Law School
New York Times, December 3, 2009
The epic downfall of golfer Tiger Woods is familiar to us all. Woods had everything: an apparently happy marriage to a stunning fashion model, with two healthy, beautiful kids; unparalleled professional success, certain to become the most winning golfer in the history of the game; fabulous wealth, raking in over a billion dollars in winnings and endorsements during his best years; the respect of millions of fans, with his squeaky-clean image as a family man and humanitarian. But Woods blew it all, engaging in multiple extramarital affairs, all luridly exposed during a media feeding frenzy, beginning in late November 2009. His public image was transformed from hero to villain almost overnight. Tiger Woods, it turns out, is not the man that we perceived him to be: he betrayed his family, his friends, his golfing colleagues and fans, his charitable foundation, and his business partners. Woods now seems like a fraud and a jerk. But, in spite of his very bad behavior, Woods is still entitled to his private space as he rebuilds from the shambles of his life.
Virtually every major news organization covered the Woods story, to some degree. One of the most famous, admired people on earth was embroiled in a salacious personal scandal, fodder for both the “reputable” news gatherers and for the tabloid gossip mongers. The prominence of Tiger Woods cannot be overstated. Among fellow golfers and golfing fans, he is still considered among the best, if not the best, to have ever played the game. Woods has won an astounding 71 PGA Tour events, including 14 majors, only 4 shy of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. Even before his public implosion, Woods was one of the most recognizable faces in the world, largely due to his high visibility as a pitch-man for everything from luxury watches, automobiles, sports drinks, management consulting services, razor blades, laser vision surgery, and video games.
But, just because Woods is very famous, the involuntary loss of his privacy from probing media outlets is unjustified. The obsessive coverage of Woods’ private life often seems more motivated by public curiosity than by the story’s newsworthiness. Law professor Robin Barnes’ recent book Outrageous Invasions: Celebrities’ Private Lives, Media, and the Law examines how the private lives of celebrities are routinely invaded in what she calls our “tell-all society.” Barnes notes that, over the past several decades, the press has been granted increased freedom, permitting tabloid publishers “to expand their cottage industry of disseminating the intimate details of the lives of the rich and famous” – without regard for these individuals’ rights to privacy.
There are those who believe that celebrities should have no expectations to privacy. Mike Paul, a PR executive in New York, says Woods surrendered his right to privacy when he turned pro in 1996. “The good news is, you’re getting a lot of money. The bad news is: Privacy? Are you kidding me? It just went out the window…You can ask for privacy, the answer is: We’re not giving it to you. You gave up a lot to gain a lot. We are now part of your life – your public life and your private life.” (USA Today, December 3, 2009). Mr. Paul’s view is extreme and unfair. Celebrities should have the same privacy expectations about certain areas of their lives (personal finances, medical history, family “skeletons in the closet,” sex life) as non-celebrities.
Woods’ detractors will gloat at his misfortunes, feeling that he deserves every bit of his misery. After months of counseling and attempting to hold his marriage together, Woods and wife Elin divorced in August 2010. Since returning to golf in April 2010, Woods’ game has continued to suffer, failing to win even a single tournament. Woods has lost almost all of his endorsement deals, and he no longer appears in television or print advertisements, due to his tarnished image. The personal, professional, and financial consequences for Woods have been dire. It is probably impossible for Woods to return to the heights of success and admiration that he once commanded.
As Woods moves ahead with creating a new life, he should be shown the same respect for his personal privacy that all value and expect. Realistically, no one should expect that Woods’ privacy will be honored, given the public’s insatiable curiosity and the willingness of some in the media to provide a steady gossip fix. But the gossip mongers who violate his privacy should be ignored and dismissed. Trampling on Woods’ right to privacy chips away at some of our most treasured individual liberties, and, in the process, diminishes the freedom of us all to carry on our lives in privacy and with quiet dignity.