The Tiger Woods Conundrum – Could Art Be The New Athletics?

by Jason on December 2, 2009 · 15 comments

in Thoughts

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not much of a golf fan. I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been on a golf course myself, and on one hand the times I’ve watched the sport on TV. I have nothing against it, it just doesn’t interest me that much.

That being said, it’s impossible not to know the name Tiger Woods, and even something about his story. I know he’s the best golfer around, I know that his dad pushed him to play golf from the time he could hold a club, and I know that he is almost universally revered as a great athlete and an all-around nice guy. At least he was until this past week.

I’ve learned a whole lot more about Tiger Woods in the last few days. I learned that he is the highest grossing athlete of our time, bringing in over $100 million annually and close to $1 billion over his career. I learned that only a fraction of this money is earned actually playing golf, with most of it coming from product endorsements ($30 million from Nike alone). And I learned that he has cheated on his wife.

But what’s amazing about all of this is that I have never once searched out news of Tiger Woods. Everything I know about the man has come to me unbidden. Frankly, I couldn’t tell you how I know most of what I know about him. I just know it. It’s like somehow his story has become so universal and pervasive that it just seeped into my brain.

And why is this? Is it because he can hit a golf ball? Is it really that simple? I don’t know, but it does raise a larger question – why do we care?

We care because we need to be entertained and we need to escape. We need to find things to distract us from those parts of our lives that are scary, boring, mundane. I get that. I do it too.

But think how different our world would be if we realized that entertainment and escape can also be educational and enriching. Imagine for a minute how different our interactions would be if we revered artistic excellence and intellectual progress as much as athletic ability. What if instead of watching Tiger hit a ball around a well-groomed park we listened to the music of John Coltrane or Darcy James Argue or Franz Schubert? If we checked out the paintings of Mark Rothko or read some Maya Angelou? And if we started talking to each other about these things around the water cooler, at the bar, over the dinner table? Do you think that would change the way we think about everything, from war to health care to education? I do.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that mind-numbing has it’s place. And I really don’t have anything against golf. But how cool would it be if these lucrative product endorsements went to Twyla Tharp and Bob Dylan instead of Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant?

I know this is an oversimplification of modern society and pop culture fascination. But I’m in favor of simplification, over or otherwise. What if it was knowledge of musicians and painters and writers and dancers that seeped into our collective consciousness? How cool would that be? Is it too much to ask that we give at least some love to our artists, our thinkers, our cultural icons?

I got up too early this morning. Maybe I’m still dreaming…

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy December 2, 2009 at 11:17 am

What a great blog post! I think you are onto something interesting here. Unfortunately, athletics is the low common denominator that most people can understand. I suppose the art/music equivalent would be American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

Andrew Durkin December 2, 2009 at 11:24 am

Nice. I was hoping some jazz blogger somewhere would say something about the Woods story. (Well, not “hoping,” exactly, but it felt like something needed to be said.) I for one have no idea why it qualifies as international news. (Well, not “no idea,” exactly, but I find it very confusing.)

Anyway, in my opinion the issue is not so much “artistic excellence and intellectual progress” vs. “brute strength and athletic ability.” I’m no sports guy, but I do know that art, beauty, and intellect are all involved when sports are done right. (Hell, dancing is a sport, and so, in a way, is playing an instrument.)

I think the Woods story actually just highlights the tension between “mass media celebrity culture” and “things that actually matter.”

Will December 2, 2009 at 2:46 pm

I like your post. So the questions are: 1. Why do people like sports? 2. Do people idolize sports figures more than artists? 3. Why does talent not matter as much in music as it does in sports? 4. Why don’t people like jazz as much as other types of music.

1. To me it’s a primitive thing – people gathering in groups, us vs. them, war type mentality – the reptilian brain. People usually root for teams in their local geographical area for the same reason, paint their faces, etc. Of course there is the escapism part (which is also sad for but another discussion).

2. Not sure if that’s true,as certain bands are making some serious coin (phish, U2, etc).

3. In order to win at sports you have to be the best – the best sprinter, golfer, hockey team, baseball team, etc. To be the most popular musician you have to have good marketing/promotion/studio trickery.

Another thing we can learn from this, is that although Tiger wants and possibly deserves for privacy, it’s getting harder for ‘celebrities’ and others to control their message and hide all their dirty laundry. It’s all about transparency these days like it or not so you might as well as accept it. It usually deflates the usual speculation.

4. Not sure the exact answer to this one but it has to do with what people are spoon fed and the need for simplicity. People usually need music to be accompanied by flashing lights, smoke bombs and dancers, a catchy chorus and vocals. A lot of jazz is instrumental and the musicians just stand there 🙂

Aaron December 2, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I only think of Tiger for his Golf game. The media should stay out of the personal life IMO.

michele December 2, 2009 at 3:40 pm

great post, jp. i think a lot about the difference between escapism/entertainment via vs. education/enrichment. there is a way that music, art, literature, etc…doesn’t have to distract us from or shy away from “those parts of our lives that are scary, boring, mundane” but rather can help us get more comfortable with, examine, and engage more fully with with those parts. thanks so much for your thoughtful blogging 🙂

Twitter: arodjazz
December 2, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Hi Jason,
Allow me to begin by saying that I love your blog and usually find myself enthusiastically agreeing with most of what you say here. I’m consistently impressed by your passion and perspective on music and the lives of musicians.
Today, however, you have entered into territory that is way above your pay grade. It is clear from your characterization of sports as mere “brute force and athletic ability” meant for mass entertainment. As a rabid fan of professional basketball, these characterizations are somewhat insulting. Athletes who are good at what they do treat their approach to the sport as if it were a work of art; they practice their asses off in a way that is not unlike many of our musical idols. In fact, take a look at this ( to see that many in the sports world are aware of important cultural trends in music and art.
I agree with Andrew that the silliness around the Woods incident better reflects the tension between mass media celebrity culture and a mature, truth-seeking approach to news coverage, rather than the “high-vs-low culture” argument dripping with condescension.
So go easy on the sports fans — we’re not just mindless consumers of mass entertainment. Many fans have a nuanced appreciation for it that goes much deeper and is worthy of a more careful treatment by someone who is unfamiliar with the subtleties.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
December 2, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Wow…I leave for a rehearsal and come back to a flurry of activity! Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments.

I’d like to address Alex’s comment, since my response will also cover some of the ground that the other posters talk about:

“Way above your pay grade”?!? I love it! Clearly, I hit a nerve.

Let me start by saying that I did not mean to insult athletes or sports fans, nor did I mean to condescend. I even stated clearly that my argument was an oversimplification to make a point. You might be surprised to know that I, too, am a big basketball fan. I love the intricacies of the game, the strategy, the skill it takes.

But when I woke up this morning and every “news” channel was talking about Tiger, especially since I KNOW there was some guy who gave some important speech last night, it really stuck in my craw. And when I heard that his endorsements total somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million it got me thinking about why it is that our athletes are worthy of that kind of money, and why our artists are uniformly struggling to survive.

It may not be a “high vs. low culture” argument, and I don’t mean to make an “us against them” argument out of it, but there’s something wrong when our athletes and the industry around them are making so much money and our artists and philosophers and teachers are making so little. Andrew did hit the nail on the head when he talked about celebrity culture and our worship thereof (thanks, once again, for making my point better than I can!).

It makes me wonder what we value, what really matters, and why?

Why is it that we revere athletes as much as we do? I’d love your take on that. Because while I can appreciate the skill it takes to do anything at the highest level, it would be nice to see artistic skill revered at least equally. Right now, the scales are tipped so far to one side!

And to Michele: thanks for stopping by! I completely agree with you that art can help us become more familiar and comfortable with those things that scare and/or trouble us. And I truly believe that if we had a greater appreciation for art we would have a great appreciation for humanity, humans, and interpersonal communication.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
December 2, 2009 at 5:30 pm

PS…Alex, thanks for hipping me to those Miami Heat/Blue Note ads. Fantastic!

Twitter: arodjazz
December 2, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Oversimplification is not a good way to go about making a point. By oversimplifying, you’re actually mis-characterizing your point. I don’t see how our societal response to Michael Jackson’s death is any more or less ridiculous than our reaction to the Tiger Woods fiasco — art v. sport is not the argument that ought to be made here.

Comparing Tiger Woods to a struggling artist is a little bit of a red herring. There are thousands of superb, dedicated and thoughtful athletes out there working for hardly any money, either. Both music and sports are a “winner take all” economy. I’m not exactly shedding a tear for Bob Dylan or Wynton Marsalis. Both are revered plenty, if you ask me.

When you write, “It may not be a “high vs. low culture” argument, and I don’t mean to make an “us against them” argument out of it, but there’s something wrong when our athletes and the industry around them are making so much money and our artists and philosophers and teachers are making so little,” you actually ARE making a “high vs. low culture” argument. You’re suggesting that athletes shouldn’t be as culturally important as artists, philosophers and teachers. This sounds like hollow elitism and DOES suggest an “us vs. them” approach to talking about sports and the arts.

I have always believed that sports and the arts have a lot in common; furthermore, if members of those two communities were more curious about one another (instead of resorting to oversimplifications and stereotypes) then both could stand to benefit. An example of this can be found in the institutional alliance between football and pep bands at many high schools and colleges: they work together to maximize the visibility of student athletes and musicians which benefits both groups.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
December 2, 2009 at 6:26 pm

I am the liberal elite. There, I said it, and I feel better. 😉

But seriously, I realize that I touched on hallowed ground here by using sports as the basis for my argument, but that’s what I was presented with today. My point is that it’s a damn shame that the arts aren’t revered as highly as pop culture. Period. I’m fine with substituting Michael Jackson for Tiger Woods if that makes you feel better (it certainly wouldn’t make a rabid Michael Jackson fan feel better).

I’m not trying to belittle sports, Alex. I merely used a current event to make a point about the lack of support and reverence for the arts in this country.

I have taken out the words “brute force” because they were a value judgment that I was not trying to make. Beyond that, I stand by my assertion, and hope you see my main point, which is this:

“What if it was knowledge of musicians and painters and writers and dancers that seeped into our collective consciousness? How cool would that be? Is it too much to ask that we give at least some love to our artists, our thinkers, our cultural icons?”

Spek December 2, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Alright, i told myself all day i was gonna stay out of it… but I just can’t help myself. I’m just gonna get right into it without qualifying this shit… i think you’re wrong. Both in how you’re approaching this subject, and in the conclusions that you draw. Firstly, athletics (and sports in particular) and art are inherently different in nature. A sport is defined by a set of rules, and people that are considered “good” at a sport are those that excel within those rules. Art (particularly that made by the artists you mentioned) is not bound by rules, and indeed shouldn’t be. If you like a particular sport, or athlete, it is because you are excited watching people compete within that particular set of rules. If you like a particular genre of music, or even just a song, it is because that aesthetic and emotion excites you. So it becomes a numbers problem. How many different sports are there? And how many different emotions exist? So yes, maybe the highest paid athlete makes more than the highest paid musician (I’m not sure i believe that, however), but it’s because there are fewer top athletes, and they are easier to define and single out. I don’t have data to back this up, but i’m willing to bet that there are far more professional artists than professional athletes…. which means there are more people living off of their art than there are people living off of their ability to compete athletically within a given set of rules. That’s a big deal.

Secondly, as to your question of how cool would it be if product endorsements went to Bob Dylan instead of Kobe Bryant?
Well, it would be f*cking uncool:
Very, very f*cking uncool:

And i think “uncool” is actually a very fitting word. I don’t think the commercialization of art would necessarily be a bad thing, but i do think it would be uncool. And frankly, i want my art to be cool. That being said, there are times when it works, when the artist is able to remain true to their art, but those times seem few and far between.

For whatever reason, athletes don’t have this problem. They can do local car commercials, but as long as they show up and perform on the field or court, they will still have fans. It is what it is. But no, i would not change it.

Lastly, and this is the most important part, your assertion that knowledge of artists does not completely permeate our collective consciousness misses the point, i think. Musicians form the foundation of our society’s oral tradition. Painters and visual artists largely define what we consider to be aesthetically beautiful. Writers give us the language which is literally the basis for all human thought and communication. THIS is our collective consciousness. The Tiger Woods story is what our collective consciousness happens to be focused on at the moment. Yesterday it was the Bubble Boy. Tomorrow, if we’re lucky, it will be focused on the thousands of kids we just sent to Afghanistan. But the point is, artists are in a unique position to shape the collective consciousness, at its very core… and being in that position may mean staying out of the limelight. I think it’s a fair trade.

Alright, i think i’ve had too much.

James December 3, 2009 at 12:33 am

There’s a famous quote attributed to Babe Ruth when a reporter pointed out that he had made more money than the president of the United States: “I had a better year than he did…”

While I agree with the basics of your point, Jason, and do think it’s sad that we put people on pedestals far too high for there own good, I think it’s safe to say that there are others within the arts who are revered for their talents who have been guilty of similar or more egregious transgressions (Roman Polanski, anyway) – whose personal demons have gotten the best of them. How much talent was wasted in the trifecta of music icons who left us at a mere 27: Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain?

Sadder to me, as a parent, is the fact that Tiger just joined the growing pantheon of fallen heroes. This episode has left me with the feeling that we cannot place too much stock in those whom we admire for their talents alone, be it hitting a little white ball with a club or a slightly larger one with a bat. As talk show host Dennis Prager has said, “Too often in society today, the most famous are the least significant and the least famous are the most significant.”

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
December 3, 2009 at 2:19 am

Thanks for chiming in, Spek and James.

I realize that the sports fans do not like the way I made my point. But believe me when I say that my intention was not to take anything away from sports, athletes or sports fans. I was not even trying to say anything about Tiger. I was just using the day’s news to make a point about what I see as a lack of reverence for our artists on a societal level. If I failed to make my point effectively then I’ll try in the future to be more focused.

However, I do think that Spek brings up some interesting points. As far as the “uncool” factor, I know that some folks feel like artists that allow their work to be used to for commercial purposes are sell-outs. I’m not saying you’re one of them, Spek, because I don’t know if you are or not. But I will go on record as saying that I am not one of those people. I support artists in their quest to make a living through their art. Some do this by teaching, some by writing film scores, some by selling their work to Pepsi or Victoria’s Secret or “The OC”. And to that I say congratulations! I don’t feel I’m in any position to say that Bob Dylan is “uncool” because he sold a song to Pepsi. And If Pepsi offered me a truckload of money for one of my songs I’d say “Where do I sign?”. That money would allow me to continue to practice my art and take some of the financial pressure off me. How is that “uncool”?

As for artists being “in a unique position to shape the collective consciousness”, that may very well be true, and hurray for that. But does it help artists be artists? No. And I don’t think that’s a very fair trade at all. My concern is continuing to make a living through my art. If I shape the collective consciousness in the process, great, but that’s not something I strive for, nor do I think it’d be wise for me to do so.

But that’s just me.

Lastly, I would like to say that I love this discussion. When I started this blog it was my hope that it wouldn’t be just me blathering into the ethers, but a dialog about how artists can make a living through their art. The fact that I have readers who are passionate enough about the subject to not only read the blog but comment, participate and take me to task is very gratifying. Thank you all for your thoughts and I hope you will continue to read, comment and share your feelings, whether you think I’m right or you think I’m wrong.

Matt P December 3, 2009 at 9:17 am

Like the post — and as you said, it has struck a nerve!

As others have said, sports and the arts have a lot in common. Especially music, perhaps jazz in particular — the timing is so important. And in both situations, the athlete/artist is giving her all, every second. There is no room or time for error.

I don’t mean to pile on, but I think what you’re really talking about is a celebrity-driven mass media. Celebrities might be sports figures, politicians, or musicians like Michael Jackson, Kanye West or (shudder) Britney Spears. In every case, the substance (assuming it exists) of that person is usually completely obscured by vapid reporting and gossip. BTW, Bob Dylan HAS recently struck some pretty lucrative deals for TV commercials — though he took lots of flak for it.

In reference to some of the comments above, there is frequent discussion among liberal elites (and I am DEFINITELY a liberal elite) about why people should like certain kinds of art, music, etc. over what other kinds. It’s important to recognize the impact of gazillion dollars of marketing, but on the hand… maybe we should try to see they’re providing people.

It is a particular hell for me to hear jazz musicians speculating about why XYZ people don’t like jazz. Yes, there are funding and marketing issues to be considered, but besides that, perhaps indie rock (GOOD indie rock, the snob in me says) is providing something that resonates differently with certain people. Perhaps “high art” people would be better off not looking at this phenomenon from a negative perspective, but a positive one. Alternately, just represent oneself with as much integrity as possible, and don’t worry about the size of your cultural slice.

Spek December 3, 2009 at 7:57 pm

First of all, if an artist sells his work to be used in commercial contexts, he is, by definition, a sell-out. If you want to assign a normative connotation to that fact, that’s on you, but i prefer to take it on a case-by-case basis. In the case of Bob Dylan, i’m sure his deal with Victoria’s Secret was really cool…for him. But can you watch either of those commercials, featuring music by the same man that wrote “Hard Rain,” and honestly think that it’s cool? Seriously.

Furthermore, the world you describe creates perverse incentives and places corporate marketing teams as the gatekeepers to artists’ livelihoods. You said you’re a fan of oversimplification, and so am I. So let’s imagine a world in which artists rely solely on the model you described: Artists create works that are then sold out (yeah, i said it!) to other parties for use in mixed-media projects. Let’s assume that, like every industry imaginable, most of the money will flow into advertising, meaning that artists will have the most monetary incentive to create art that appeals to a marketer’s sensibilities (low risk, high yield, wide appeal). Furthermore, marketer’s will have an incentive to cultivate cheaper and more easily accessible art, while simultaneously limiting the scope of artists that the masses are exposed to in order to maximize synergy between each other (Example, there’s a reason Michael Jordan was everywhere in the 90’s…because even when he was advertising for Hanes, he was still reminding the audience about Gatorade and Nike…it makes sense to have fewer people endorsing various products).

I hope, by now, you see my point. The world you describe already exists. We live in it. Bob Dylan does have lucrative endorsement deals, I am wearing a t-shirt I saw in Jay-Z video, and great artists like Dave Chappelle and Lauryn Hill are considered “crazy.” Turn on any rap video made in the last ten years and tell me that commercialization has been good for art.

I’m all for figuring out a way to make a living by making art. But what you’ve described isn’t it, and is in my opinion, ultimately destructive. And I feel your frustration… I work a minimum wage job and keep my neighbors up at night yelling rap lyrics towards an empty wall. But that’s life. And if artists want to make a sustainable future for themselves, then they should do what artists do best: Be creative. But do so with an eye towards the long-term, not strive to build a world in which the same people that hock ladies underwear get to decide which artists eat and which do not.

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