Tiger Woods and the sport ethic

To understand the way Tiger Woods’ victory at The Masters is being covered and described in sports journalism, the Sport Ethic is the perfect lens:

To review, the Sport Ethic can be seen as the worldview that elite athletes (professional, Olympic, high-level college) and coaches ascribe to. Sociologists Robert Hughes and Jay Coakely came up with this idea in a landmark 1991 paper. The four elements of the Sport Ethic are as follows (all quotes are from Coakely’s 2009 book, Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies):

Athletes are dedicated to “the game” above all other things. “Athletes must love ‘the game’ and prove it by giving it top priority in their lives. They must have the proper attitude.”
Athletes strive for distinction. “Winning symbolizes improvement and establishes distinction.”

Athletes accept risks and play through pain. “Athletes are expected to endure pressure, pain and fear without backing down from competitive challenges.”

Athletes accept no obstacles in the pursuit of success in sports. “Athletes don’t accept obstacles without trying to overcome them and beat the odds; dreams, they say, are achievable unless one quits.”

One of my operating hypotheses as a sports media researcher has been that sports journalism perpetuates the Sport Ethic, primarily through its reliance upon players and coaches as sources for stories. And understanding the Sport Ethic is a key to understanding the significance of Tiger Woods’ victory. In fact, Woods’ entire career can be reflected in the four elements of the Sport Ethic. Woods, throughout his life, was shown to be dedicated to the game above all else. His last victory at a major before this weekend came in 2008, when he won the U.S. Open while playing with stress fractures in one of his legs (Accept risks and play through pain).

Woods’ comeback is an elegant example of the refusal to accept obstacles in the pursuit of success. From the self-inflicted pains of adultery and drug abuse to the series of injuries and surgeries that have derailed his career the past few years, the Tiger Woods story is one full of obstacles overcome and odds beaten. It’s not coincidence that Nike’s post-Masters ad revolves around the theme of dreams:

But it’s the second thread that has me thinking the most. The importance of winning in sports and the Sport Ethic. That life has a scoreboard and we are measured by our wins and losses.

If there’s one thing that has bothered me a bit about the Tiger Woods coverage (aside from the “this is the greatest story in sports history” hyperbole), it’s the notion that he completed his comeback, vindicated himself, proved himself, because he won. To me, that ties personal vindication far too closely with success. As if his comeback would have been any less impressive personally if a ball had bounced an inch to the right on Sunday. As if his value as a person depended on his score, as if his hug with his son only mattered because he had the lowest score on the golf course.

But of course, that’s sports, right? There’s a scoreboard, and there are winners and losers. And if you aren’t a winner, you are a loser. And if you are a winner, you are distinct. You are good.

That is the essence of the Sport Ethic.