The Trouble With Professionalism

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On December
16, an Associated Press panel named Tiger Woods the “athlete of
the decade.” Since turning pro in 1997, Woods has enjoyed phenomenal
success and unprecedented media adulation. Until recently, that
is.

After winning
the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods took a break from golf to recover from
a serious knee injury. He returned in 2009 but failed to win any
of this year’s four major championships. Then came the events of
Thanksgiving weekend. I won’t rehash that story in this space; if
you’ve read this far, you know what I’m talking about.

On December
9, Woods released a statement saying he would take an “indefinite
leave” from golf to focus on his personal affairs. There’s no way
to know when — or if — Woods will return. Woods certainly has the
financial resources to live the rest of his life in seclusion. Nothing
compels him to return to the public eye.

If he doesn’t
return, the sports press that drove him into seclusion will have
shot itself in the collective foot. The press needs Woods; he doesn’t
need them. The press thinks just the opposite, of course, and that’s
the subject I will address here.

Professionals
vs. Consumers

Woods isn’t
the first professional athlete to seek asylum from the press. Steve
Carlton was a Hall of Fame pitcher, primarily with the Philadelphia
Phillies. In a 24-year career, Carlton won 329 games and four Cy
Young Awards, and he currently sits fourth on Major League Baseball’s
all-time strikeouts list.

One thing Carlton
did not do during his playing days was talk to the press. Carlton
had a poor season in 1973, and the local press responded by mocking
what they deemed his unusual training methods. Carlton remained
largely silent for the remainder of his career. He later said it
was on the advice of a psychiatrist who told him to eliminate “negative
influences” from his life.

Baseball scholar
Bill James, writing in his 2001 Historical
Baseball Abstract
, said Carlton “embodied the cultural rift
between sportswriters and players which became manifest in the 1970s.”
James saw the Carlton-sportswriter feud as emblematic of a larger
(and troubling) economic phenomenon:

After World
War II newspapermen were caught by the fever of professionalism
which was then gripping the nation. Cops became police officers,
nurses became health care practitioners, garbage men became sanitation
workers. Newspapermen were no longer content to be newspapermen;
by the late 1960s they had become journalists.

At the same
time, baseball players were getting unionized, and emerging as
professional athletes. Now, I don’t know where you stand on “professionalism,”
but I think professionalism ranks with socialism, psychology,
and twice-baked potatoes as the worst ideas of the twentieth century.
Cops become police officers, but the crime rate soared. Professionalism
in law enforcement has brought us the O.J. Simpson case in lieu
of justice. Professionalism in education has given us teachers
who know how to administer sophisticated evaluative interests,
but simply don’t have time to deal with the kids who can’t read.

We would
all be better off if the principle of civilian control of the
military was extended to civilian control of the judicial system,
civilian control of the schools, civilian control of the police
force, and civilian control of the medical profession.

Professionalism
represents a separation of the consumer market from the professional
market. The consumer market values serving customers. The professional
market values its social (or political) position.

 


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For the last
twelve years, the consumer and professional markets shared the same
objectives with respect to Tiger Woods. Consumers flocked to see
Woods dominate golf tournaments, and professionals rode the wave.
Talking Tiger raised the professionals’ own profile and social value.

The downside
was that Woods himself remained an inaccessible, private person.
He didn’t cultivate personal relationships with the press. Other
sports superstars, such as Michael Jordan, exchanged access for
privacy by maintaining a protective layer of media dependents.

Professional
journalists require access and sources to survive. Access is their
currency. Woods benefited in the short term by cutting off the press,
but that decision had consequences that are now painfully apparent.
The professional journalists now consider every aspect of Woods’s
personal life — including any unfounded rumors — as fair game.

Some complain
that “professional” journalists need to adhere to a code of ethics.
I recently had this debate with law professor Rick
Karcher
— another “professional” — who said that government
courts must decide what personal subjects should be off-limits to
the press. That misses the boat completely. Professionalism is the
cause of the present situation, not the solution. The only valid
rule of journalistic ethics is the one Woods violated: Thou shalt
not deny the press access.

The problem,
however, is that the consumer market — the fans of Woods and golf
— don’t care about any of this. Consumers want to see Tiger play
golf. Consumers don’t care about a Washington Post reporter
who’s bitter that Woods wouldn’t give him an interview for one of
his books.

That’s not
to deny there’s a consumer market for gossip. Indeed, publications
like that National Inquirer and TMZ.com
discovered and reported Woods’s personal indiscretions long before
the professional journalists did. The difference is the tabloid
reporters don’t require the same high level of capital and resources
as, say, ESPN or the New York Times. Tabloids serve the consumer
market, and as such they do so more efficiently than the professional
market.

Of course,
the professionals blame their failings on consumers. Dan
Le Batard
, a longtime Miami Herald columnist and radio
commentator, wrote that consumers — and capitalism — were responsible
for the shameful actions of his media colleagues:

[W]hat has
happened to politicians and celebrities since has now spilled
with force into the playpen for the first time, as The National
Enquirer and TMZ suddenly realize how much money there is to be
made by disgracing athletes, and the cattle media are forced by
a public’s insatiable appetite to moo toward the Tiger trough.

If the consumer
market for celebrity destruction were as large and insatiable as
Le Batard suggests, then Woods’ personal life would not have escaped
scrutiny for over a decade. Leonard
Shapiro
, the Washington Post’s senior golf writer (and
sports media critic) noted in his own column that he and his fellow
elite journalists completely missed the signs:

I’m stunned,
and maybe that’s why I’ve also been feeling somewhat uneasy ever
since Woods’s run-in with a fire hydrant on Nov. 27 became public.
Plainly put, I’m also a little embarrassed that I did not have
a clue about Woods’s bizarre double life in what has become one
of the most shocking free-falls from grace in the history of sports.

The truth is
that neither a depraved public nor the laws of economics forced
the media into its current frenzy. The sudden increase in demand
for Woods gossip is coming entirely from the professional market,
not the consumer market, and it’s driven by several factors: (1)
A decade of pent-up resentment against Woods for not being more
accessible; (2) Woods’ relatively unsuccessful 2009 season; and
(3) the inciting incident occurred during the slowest part of the
news cycle — a holiday weekend — and the ongoing gossip provides
convenient filler for a normally dead December.

The Tiger
“Bubble”

As of this
writing, the New York Post has run a Tiger Woods story on
its front page for nineteen consecutive days. The Post also
loses money every single year. These aren’t completely unrelated
phenomena. As noted above, consumer-driven gossip publications can
be profitable. The Post, however, maintains the infrastructure
of a daily circulation newspaper. It’s an economically inefficient
means of discussing a man’s sex life.

The Post
is owned by News Corporation, the Rupert Murdoch-led media conglomerate.
Murdoch doesn’t expect the Post to be profitable. He has
the Wall Street Journal for that. The Post serves
the professional market; it furthers the social position of Murdoch’s
empire in elite New York circles.

In any industry,
social standing drives the professional market. There’s a tendency
towards over-specialization. (Just look at law and medicine.) Value
is assigned to hype rather then productivity.

When the Woods
story exploded, two of ESPN’s highest paid pundits, Bill Simmons
and Rick Reilly, moved quickly to maintain the hype level. Simmons
proclaimed Woods’ exploits the “story of the decade,” with just
days to spare. Reilly — who was lured from his lofty columnist’s
perch at Sports Illustrated with a two million dollar per
year contract — went on multiple ESPN outlets to lecture Woods about
his moral failings and offered detailed instructions on how one
of the world’s most successful men could rehabilitate his standing
in the media’s (er, public’s) eye. The first thing Reilly demanded
was that Woods stop playing golf.

Now, given
a choice, consumers would overwhelmingly choose to see Woods play
golf over watching Reilly pontificate on ESPN. But as we’ve seen,
the professional and consumer markets value different things. Reilly
isn't paid two million dollars to satisfy consumers; he’s paid to
provide hype-and-cover for other professional journalists who want
to talk ad nauseam about the Woods scandal.

Ultimately,
the professional market creates a bubble — not unlike a Fed-induced
credit bubble — in an attempt to separate itself entirely from the
consumer market. But it can only go so far. Without the underlying
consumer demand, professionals risk total irrelevancy. We’ve already
seen this happen with newspapers and print media (which is why old-media
types like Reilly jumped to newer media like ESPN).

What’s unique
here is that one person — Tiger Woods — can literally burst the
bubble. If Woods never returns to golf — or if he returns but ceases
to be a championship player, which isn’t unprecedented in golf —
consumer demand will collapse. Individual consumers won’t disappear,
of course; they’ll just consume other products.

It’s the professional
market that will be left scrambling. Turning against Woods is a
short-term strategy designed to assert the professional market’s
social standing over a “rogue” athlete. But if the bubble bursts,
media conglomerates might suddenly question the long-term value
of, say, the two-million-dollar-per-year pundit who helped wreck
Woods’ career.

Conclusion

Bill James
observed nearly a decade ago, “The Internet has undermined professionalism
in journalism which is a good thing.” This seems counterintuitive
to those who blame the Internet for fueling the current Tiger-mania.
But the Internet simply provides a set of tools. Individuals drive
markets, not machines.

Professionalism,
James said, represents a type of “organized selfishness.” It’s a
mechanism that allows individuals to maintain social standing irrespective
of their talent or productivity. The “Tiger Bubble” is just the
most recent sports story — after steroids, the Duke lacrosse hoax,
et al. — to expose the poor judgment of “professional” journalists,
and the extent to which the professional and consumer markets are
disconnected. Hopefully, this malinvestment can be corrected once
the bubble bursts.

December
19, 2009

S.M.
Oliva [send him mail] is
a writer and paralegal living in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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