Groupies are the scourge of sportsmen's wives. They hang around outside locker rooms for hours, offer bare breasts for autographs and ooze availability. Golfers have long lamented that baseball groupies are hotter, but they have their fair share of female fans. In a remarkably candid profile written for GQ in 1997, Charles Pierce revealed that even Tiger Woods took notice of the women who would "swoon behind the ropes" when he walked by. Pierce noted one woman in particular who was watching Woods was "dressed in a frilly lace top and wearing a pair of tiger-striped stretch pants that fit as though they were decals." A bystander said that the previous year, this same woman wore pants featuring sharks when following Greg Norman.
Sartorial horrors aside (shark pants?), it's not difficult to imagine how hard it would be to keep your cool when married to a man constantly pawed, fawned over, and treated as a god. (Even Michelle Obama was reported saying she wanted to tell her husband's most physically ardent fans to "back off" and "get a life": "It's embarrassing.")
This is why Woods's strongest argument for privacy is the need to protect his wife, Elin Nordegren, who must be beside herself with anger and humiliation. Sure, we all want to know the details of the night he crashed into a fire hydrant and she smashed the windows of his car with a golf club. But we do not have the right to know either what happened with his wife or the more prurient details of his moral "transgressions." He is not a politician, priest, or morals crusader. He is an athlete.
Why do we even pretend that sports-people are models of propriety? Or rather why do we need them to be? They are physically gifted, driven, and disciplined. That's what you need to excel at sport. Not moral strength, courage, decency, or fidelity. These virtues are admirable, but are a bonus: they should not be an expectation. Yet we continue to project an irrational desire for the physically perfect to be spiritually strong.
You'd think, from the response to Woods's plea, that the right to privacy no longer exists for anyone who dares to excel; that it is an archaic notion that we did away with when God invented computers. Woods said in his statement that he regrets "those transgressions with all of my heart," adding he had not been true to his values. He went on to insist "there is an important and deep principle at stake, which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy." Privacy was a virtue, he wrote, that "must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions."
He is right. Privacy is a forgotten and important virtue. However, there are two caveats. First, you jeopardize your right to privacy somewhat when you muck around with women—like the delightfully named cocktail waitress Jaimee Grubbs—who will tell tales of skinny calves and "romantic" cuddles, and leak voice mails and text messages in a blink once asked. You can't expect to maintain privacy if you choose to share intimate moments with people who have no interest in privacy themselves.
The second is that sometimes respecting privacy can sound very much like ignoring and enabling. Steven Ortiz, an assistant sociology professor at Oregon State University and an expert on marriages in sport, says sportsmen often expect to get away with infidelity because of a "spoiled athletes syndrome," where the talented are set apart, told they are special, and never held accountable for inappropriate and careless behavior.
At times reporters have protected them too. Even Pierce did not fully disclose what he knew—or believed—when he wrote his 1997 profile of Woods. It was shocking at the time because he revealed Tiger told racist, dirty jokes and wondered aloud if "so many good-looking women hang around baseball and basketball" because black men are allegedly well endowed. But Pierce kept some things hidden. Last week, he wrote that back then "one of the worst-kept secrets on the PGA tour was that Tiger was something of a hound. Everybody knew." Some people even "saw it." It wasn't reported because it was none of our business, right? Now, because he is married, and because he hit a hydrant and a tree, it apparently is.
You should not have to earn a right to privacy. But there are many ways to make people think you have given it away.
Julia Baird is the author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians. Follow heron Twitter.