Gossip used to give way to genius, but not anymore
Published 31/10/2010 | 05:00
Eddie O'Sullivan said you can't unring a bell, and equally we can't unknow what we know about the private lives of the rich and famous.
But sometimes you wish you could, especially in the fields of sport and entertainment where all that matters is what they can do, not who they are.
When Tiger Woods, before the fall, was clocking up major after major with that astonishing force of will and technical mastery, no one needed to know any more than what they were seeing. When he holed that miracle chip on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters, we saw the ultimate expression of what he could do, not who he was.
And no one felt short-changed. The moment itself was enough: it was pure and complete and told us everything we needed to know about the man who achieved it. And it had a kind of innocence about it too, for the way in which it inspired millions to shake their heads and smile at the wonder of such a thing.
If some tabloid snake had whispered rumours about Tiger's private life into the ear of someone caught up in that magical moment, the reaction would've been, 'Who cares? Look at what they guy's just done!' It wouldn't have mattered then, and it shouldn't matter now.
But of course it does, because now we know. It matters, some people would say, because now we know better. But we don't know better, we just know different; we just know more. We know stuff we didn't ask to know. Someone else set the agenda. And the exposé of his private life has changed how he is perceived, even though nothing in the record books has changed: he still sank that chip, he still has 14 majors to his name. But Woods' personal behaviour has somehow contaminated his public achievements. One is gossip, the other is genius, but in another age the gossip was kept in its place.
Muhammad Ali was a womaniser, so for that matter were Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy. If they'd lived in the current age they would have been brought down, maybe before they'd had a chance to leave their mark on the world.
When the Woods story broke, hints surfaced in the media about various golfers and their affairs in previous eras. Sports journalists knew, but didn't tell, as did those who covered the worlds of film and politics and popular entertainment. They had their reasons, one supposes, among them the need to maintain access to their sources, but also because there was a well-worn knowledge that this sort of tittle tattle didn't matter -- it was just human behaviour in all its folly and vanity.
And, more to the point, it didn't change anything. They knew Babe Ruth was a hellraiser in his private life but he was still knocking home runs out of the ballpark. They knew Louis Armstrong liked his weed and his ladies but so what, he was making some of the greatest music of the 20th century. One old-school American writer, asked in a documentary about Armstrong, just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Women threw themselves at Louis -- and Louis didn't always get outta the way."
In other words, that's life, big deal, who cares? Nowadays we're left with the charade of famous people making choreographed apologies, for the consumption of the world's media, when they've been exposed for whatever moral lapse is deemed worthy of a headline.
On this side of the Atlantic, Wayne Rooney is the fallen idol du jour. In medieval times they'd have put him in the stocks in the town square and have the riff raff pelt him with cabbages. Now it's an infantilised media that carries out the ritual public humiliation of anyone who might sell a few papers, yield more hits on a website or bring more viewers to a TV station.
There is collateral damage too, not just for the families involved, but for the millions of kids who are captivated by a Rooney or a Woods and who find themselves learning about the adult world long before it is appropriate. For many of them, a tabloid heading about the likes of John Terry is probably the first breach in their innocence.
Last week the best the yellow press could muster was a flurry of headlines about a few Manchester City players going on the piss in Scotland. It's become an escalating cycle of sleaze and there's no avoiding it, for adults or children.
The standard excuse, beloved of the tabloid press in particular, is that they're only giving us what we want to know. But that's a self-fulfilling strategy, a lie that becomes a truth. When Ali was in his pomp, the masses weren't demanding all the secrets of his private life. Again, his performance in the ring was enough.
People turn to sport, among other reasons, to escape all the usual disappointments and betrayals of everyday life. And it doesn't matter, ultimately, that the great performers here are themselves flawed human beings.
But they nowadays conceal their humanity behind robotic exteriors, for fear of giving anything away. Many of them have a hunted look about them when they face the cameras.
The media that traditionally bridged the gap between the stars and the fans has instead built a wall between them -- and it seems to be only getting higher.