The Tiger Woods apology: a matter of authenticity

It looked sincere, it sounded sincere, but only actions over time will give it the ring of authenticity.

An apology requires the ring of authenticity in order to be believed. Standing before a lone camera Friday, in front of friends, family, colleagues, and literally millions of television viewers around the world, a somber and somewhat nervous-looking Tiger Woods sounded sincere. But will his words of contrition and promises be believed? 

That’s the challenge with celebrity apologies carried out in a highly public fashion. Fallen politicians, sports and religious figures, corporate giants and Hollywood types – many of them roll out highly scripted mea culpas. They consult communications experts on the art of the apology, which in turn sows doubt about sincerity.

Akio Toyoda’s apology about his company’s car defects, to name a recent example, was choreographed. But Toyota’s corporate chief also came across as sincere. His body language (the bow, the grim face), his verbal language (the humble acceptance of personal responsibility, the admission of serious mistakes, the promise of reform), his actions (recalling millions of automobiles, admission of further Toyota design flaws, willingness to testify before Congress) – those all point to sincerity.

Similarly, the golf great appeared deeply sorry for a string of extramarital affairs that sullied his reputation, shocked and disappointed his colleagues and fans, and, most distressingly, deeply wounded his family.

Mr. Woods showed it physically – glancing his eyes sideways, clearing his throat, holding his breath, pausing, swallowing, wiping his face as he exited behind the curtain. The man of supreme confidence didn’t look so confident on Friday.

He also expressed remorse in his language – accepting sole blame, acknowledging deep hurt to others, recognizing moral and even spiritual life lessons to be learned, and admitting that he’s got a long road to reform ahead and needs help in traveling it.

And yet, in the back of a viewer’s mind, is the knowledge that this was a highly controlled event, just like Woods’s golf regimen. No media questions. A delivery on his terms. Also understood: Tiger Woods has to win his reputation back if he wants to regain the stature that made him a professional and philanthropic role model. So, there is necessarily a self-serving element to his appearance at the clubhouse headquarters of the PGA tour in Florida.

What will drive the sincerity home, of course, is exactly what Woods’s wife, Elin, told her husband. As Woods told it: “Elin pointed out to me my real apology to her will not come in the form of words, it will come from my behavior over time.” 

The rest of us are left to reconsider Woods, like any public figure who has erred, by what he does. To be a trusted role model again in public life, he must demonstrate his newfound humility beyond mere words. A sincere apology was the right step for Woods. That, and his dedication to seek help and his willingness to put off professional golf for now, will help him gain what he says he seeks: “character and decency.”

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