Dick Meister: Time to hustle, Tiger

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Shame on Tiger for his marital infidelities. But what about his worse transgressions?

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister is a San Francisco writer.)

Oh, the handwringing over golfer Tiger Woods marital infidelities, and shame on him, a man who claims to stand for solid family values. But what of his worse transgressions?

I mean Tiger’s attempts to get gullible sports fans to buy goods that he endorses - not because of any value they may possess, but because he’s paid millions of dollars to do it by Nike, American Express, General Motors and others who lust after our money, just as Woods lusted after ladies who weren’t his wife.

Tiger Woods is hardly the only one. Many athletes in many sports also hustle us and, like Tiger, are not criticized in the slightest for helping merchandisers peddle goods and services to impressionable youngsters and star-struck adults.

Rather than being reproached , the athletes often become even more celebrated. Think, for example, of O.J. Simpson, widely admired before his murder trial at least as much for his car rental commercials as for his football exploits. The more celebrated the athletic pitchmen become, the more commercial opportunities they are offered and the richer they become at the expense of those who celebrate them.

The commercial money is, of course, in addition to the athletes’ earnings for playing their sports that often run into the millions. Obviously, the athletes don’t need the money. But as long as it’s available, they’ll grab it.

Even the Olympic athletes who are supposedly the best this country has to offer are in on it, their medal-winning performances earning them the golden chance to try to sell us breakfast food, flashlight batteries and such.

Coaches can also profit, most notably college basketball coaches. They can make $10,000 to $100,000 a year – sometimes even more – for wearing certain brands of ostentatiously labeled sweaters and sweatshirts during televised games or even news conferences, for doing radio and TV commercials and otherwise pitching products, most lucratively by outfitting their teams in particular brands of footgear.

Peculiar conduct, isn’t it, for a group whose job description includes helping mold the character of young men and women. The coaches, in any case, are as eager as the others who happily sell their services to commercial interests.

How can they resist? As actor Robert Young acknowledged in explaining why he became a TV pitchman after years of turning down commercials as demeaning, “It’s a license to steal.”

But there has been at least one celebrated American who turned down the chance to play highly-paid pitchman – former New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. Sounds crazy, I know, but throughout his entire 10-year career as a professional basketball superstar with the New York Knicks a quarter-century ago, Bradley actually refused – refused! – to endorse products or engage in any of the other immensely profitable commercial ventures so readily available to star athletes.

Look at this from Bradley’s 1976 book, “Life on the Run”:

“Perhaps I wanted no part of an advertising industry which created socially useless personal needs and then sold a product to meet those needs …. More probably, I wanted to keep my experience of basketball …. as innocent and unpolluted by commercialism as possible…. Taking money for hawking products [would have] demeaned my experience of the game. I cared about basketball. I didn’t give a damn about perfumes, shaving lotions, clothes, or special foods.”

One, however, does have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of those who revel in being paid lavishly for conning people into buying stuff they don’t necessarily need. Consider another basketball superstar, Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest fan hustler of all time. Or at least he was before Tiger Woods came along .

On returning to basketball in 1995 after taking a year off to play professional baseball, for instance, Jordan shrewdly changed his basketball jersey number from No, 23 to No. 45 so as to generate still more sales of replicas to the fans who spend more than $12 billion a year on jerseys, shoes and other products bearing the names – and numbers - of their heroes.

But Tiger Woods probably can do much better than that. He may have to. Those girlfriends of his may prove quite expensive, don’t you think?

Dick Meister is a San Francisco writer. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.e mighgt have to All all