Last Sunday, when Tiger Woods won the Masters after his long drought, it was more than just one of the most incredible comebacks in history. It showed America’s eagerness to embrace a man who persevered through years of setbacks, especially self-inflicted ones, regardless of whatever selective amnesia that requires.
America does love a comeback: Achievement in sports somehow makes us more willing to compartmentalize, to forgive transgressions, to make a complicated man more deserving of public redemption. And Woods, at age 43, needed a lot of redeeming. His fall from grace started in 2009 when his wife caught him cheating with multiple women and continued through 2017 when he pleaded guilty to reckless driving.
As he plotted his comeback, Woods has emerged as a unique figure — both President Barack Obama and President Trump applauded him. Mr. Trump will even award him a medal. This ability to charm so many different Americans has almost certainly aided his return to grace, while also alienating a large swath of society that sees him as inauthentic.
Why aren’t there more redemption stories like this among women? It’s not just because women aren’t given second chances. It’s because they are rarely able to reach those heights in the first place.
Many high-achieving people, regardless of gender, have an Icarus complex. The extreme qualities and the obsessive pursuit of success that drive their ascents can lead to their downfall. The discipline and pressure can lead to addictions, the opposite of control. Obviously we saw that in Woods; following his descent grew excruciating. But it fit the narrative.
Woods understood this. Entering rehab in 2010 after accusations of infidelity, sex addiction and substance abuse, he said: “I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”
In men, excessive qualities can be forgiven, even admired — when it works out at least. His trajectory is a reminder of who pays forever for their mistakes and whose transgressions can be set aside.
Part of the problem is that so few women even reach the athletic heights of Woods, let alone stay there. Yes, we have the extraordinary Serena Williams. But can you name another female athlete on the financial and cultural level as Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Tom Brady and their peers?
Of the few iconic women, sponsors and fans, to a certain degree, want them to be perfect — or at least quiet. Women’s moral behavior deeply influences our perception of their professional achievements.
Consider how swiftly the Olympic runner and nine-time N.C.A.A. champion Suzy Favor Hamilton was vilified after she was caught working as an escort while coping with mental illness. Nike immediately severed ties, as did many other groups associated with her. The athletic achievements on her Wikipedia page became subsumed by stories of prostitution.
“It was as if I must have murdered someone,” Favor Hamilton said recently. “Never a degree of ‘Well, perhaps something must be very much wrong.’”
For Hamilton, the attraction to vice fulfilled the same thing many elite athletes get from the rush of victory in sport. “It was the buzz I felt as an athlete,” she said. “I have a history of taking things to extremes.”
Most champions do.
Oksana Baiul won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating for her native Ukraine in 1994, and moved to Connecticut with millions of dollars, after having slept alone in an ice rink as an impoverished orphan. A few years later, she had been charged with a D.U.I. and gone through rehab for alcohol abuse. “She appears serious about trying to turn her life around and returning to respectability,” The Times reported in 1998, noting the 17 pounds she’d lost since the previous winter, “when she was drinking and overweight and barely able to land any jump.”
Spoiler: She didn’t return to competitive skating.
Two great female athletes did have major comebacks. But the “setbacks” were totally different. Monica Seles was victimized by a maniacal fan who stabbed her on the court. And Serena Williams is in the midst of comeback — after having a baby. Like Woods, each of these women had physical setbacks. But neither of them made mistakes.
Except Williams has surpassed her male peers and demonstrated the flip side of the extreme, confident and righteous qualities necessary to achieve success — she dared to get angry, and show it, when she opposed what she considered an unfair call at the United States Open last September. The public immediately chastised her. There was silence, and then a lot of Instagram posts about motherhood and her daughter.
No women have the leeway to behave like Woods and get away with it; a black woman certainly does not. Just imagine the reaction if Serena Williams was caught cheating on her husband, Alexis Ohanian, with numerous men.
There are also practical ingredients of a comeback: It requires support, both popular and financial. Nike never abandoned Woods; analysts said his win generated worth more than $22 million in exposure for the company.
Women literally cannot afford to make the messy mistakes we see in the long arc of a lot of a storied male athletes’ careers, and they rarely get the payoffs.
“I’m no Tiger Woods,” Hamilton told me. “There is so much money at stake with someone like him. So a company like Nike will do anything to protect him and his image.” She still had a relationship with Nike when reports of her escort work prompted the company to drop her. Now, she said, “I’m on an island trying to protect myself.”
Society rarely allows women to nurture those bold qualities that drive standout success. Instead, to get ahead, women either learn to stifle those instincts, or get punished for them. This muffles the traits that might lead to failure and inevitably also the qualities that lead to success.
To be sure, some men are being held accountable for their bad behavior these days. And Woods faced widespread public scorn after his philandering and reckless driving. But that evaporated last weekend when he was widely celebrated, after having been encouraged to pursue his comeback.
Shouldn’t everyone be able to recover from a fall from grace? Or at the very least, shouldn’t we allow both men and women to get high enough to fall?
Lindsay Crouse is a senior staff editor for Op-Docs and an athlete.
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