The Virgin King in the Land of Strangelove

“Women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.” — General Jack D. Ripper, Dr. Strangelove

As a social product, sports are never just about athletic competition. They reflect attitudes about such diverse topics as race, class, religion, regionalism, free trade, parenting, and, yes, sex. Sex, in fact, has been propelling a great many sports headlines of late. In particular, revelations of Tiger Woods’ cavalcade of mistresses has made segments of ESPN look at times like TMZ, with reporters more accustomed to rehashing box scores instead grasping for euphemisms like “rendezvous”, “arrangements”, and “intimate”.

As arguably the most visible athlete on the planet, Woods’ sexual dalliance no doubt overshadows other sporting sex scandals (and a great many other legitimate sports stories, as well), but such imbroglios are nothing new. What’s truly shocking about Woods’ affairs is that they so completely undermine his expertly-crafted public image. No longer the apolitical pitch-bot whose only desire seemed to be golf, Woods has become imperfect and common, a failed husband and father whose indulgences in some ways hearken back to sports Lotharios of old.

As mistress after mistress began to emerge, leaping forth into the spotlight like painted clowns from a toy car, Woods’ prodigious appetites were given center stage. The sheer quantity of these women brought to mind that most prolific of bedders: Wilt Chamberlain. Infamously boasting that he slept with 20,000 women, Chamberlain parlayed his sports celebrity into a hyperactive sex life. The same could be said for Joe Namath, whose swinging lifestyle as a professional quarterback in New York earned him the nickname, “Broadway Joe”.

Of course, Chamberlain and Namath come from another era. During the ‘60s and ’70s sexuality was more freely expressed in public and, despite the burgeoning women’s movement, men more overtly encouraged to court multiple partners. Today, thanks to the rise of political correctness on the left, and neo-Puritanism on the right, athletes and sex present a far more troubling match in our public discourse. As well, neither Chamberlain nor Namath were married during the zenith of their celebrated bachelorhoods. Nor were they implicated in making illegal payments for sex. Woods, for his part, has been excoriated far more for the former than the (alleged) latter.

In either case, Woods’ sex life has come to the fore in the way that nearly every athlete’s sex life does these days: as transgressive. Whether it’s marital infidelity, sexual perversion, or actual assault (as another developing case against Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger reflects), every sports story with the word “sex” in the headline is bound to involve bad news.

That’s not to say that we should be actively celebrating male players as womanizing studs. Nor, frankly, should we be paying any public attention whatsoever to what (as Woods has informed us repeatedly) are “private matters”. Still, they ways in which athletes’ sexual practices (be they consensual, extra-marital, or even illegal) are fretted over by our media surely must say something about the rest of us.

For starters, it tells us that “sex sells” — as in, headlines. Still, to suggest that the ad-buying public is driven by voyeuristic thrills is hardly illuminating. It also doesn’t fully explain why so much scrutiny is devoted to the embarrassing minutia of every misdeed, as if reconstructing timelines, conversations, even positions can actually help us to discover some hidden insight into these athlete’s psyches.

More accurately, this kind of prurient prodding opens a window onto our public soul — as fixated by celebrity and consumption as it is constricted by Puritan morality. Controversies like the Woods case are opportunities for cathartic damnation. We demand (and are given) the most lurid details while, at the same time, are able to safely distance ourselves from them via self-righteous condemnation. In that way, these kinds of acts truly are public sexual favors, in so far as they allow us to reinforce a collective moral code, while perhaps venting some of the pressures that such a code creates.

Woods and his ilk, then, function as captivating examples of how not to behave. Given that we will no doubt continue to read about future scandals to come, might we hold out future hope for a positive sexual role model among our athletes?

That possibility may already have arrived. As Florida Gator quarterback Tim Tebow enters the NFL this year, he brings with him a well-documented, avidly-publicized moral compass that might be more to the liking of our delicate sensibilities. Tebow himself, while a successful college player and Heisman trophy-winner, has most recently undergone a makeover to convert his passing motion into a style more fitting for professional offenses. What’s likely not to change about him, though, is the evangelical brand of Christianity his literally wore on his eyeblack as a college player.

Like most evangelicals, Tebow cites sexual purity as a virtue, and has publically admitted to being a virgin who is saving himself for marriage. The admission has only intensified the public admiration the quarterback whose nickname “Superman” has been applied equally to his on-field prowess and his off-field demonstrations of piety.

Tebow’s stance, in fact, is in line with the “True Love Waits”® movement, organized by a group called Lifeway that offers “Biblical solutions for life”. The abstinence campaign is aimed at teenagers and college-aged students, and features a variety of rings, bracelets, and necklaces for sale for those who, unlike Tebow, lack access to press conferences to publically display their lifestyle choices (as he did at the 2009 SEC media day).

As one of the most visible spokesperson for this movement (if not Lifeway specifically), fans and media members have widely praised Tebow for his chastity, holding him up as an example for other athletes. The implication, of course, is that the majority fail to measure up to an unstated, yet aggressively enforced, code of behavior.

Indeed, the only other athlete who so openly declared his virginity was Los Angeles Laker A.C. Green. Green, now retired, played on some of the greatest Laker teams in franchise history, though he was overshadowed by teammates like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. As a quarterback, Tebow is certainly the most visible athlete to make such an admission, one that sets him apart from scandal and innuendo and elevates his popularity in the public eye. Yet why, exactly?

In some ways, Tebow is a novelty, a celebrity who refuses to indulge in the same opportunities as so many others in his position have done. As he does so, though, he takes part in a long-standing tradition of self-denial among athletes. An old wives’ tale has it that sex weakens a man physically, blunting his competitive edge. Rocky knew as much in the movie when he turned Adrian down: “you really look great…but I can’t fool around durin’ trainin’ — makes the legs weak.”

That kind of restraint makes Rocky a stronger character in the audience’s eyes, and it does the same for Tebow. As one who commits to a higher purpose (whether it’s training or God), he demonstrates the popular ideal of self-sacrifice.

A second movie is also instructive here. In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the insane General Ripper explains his own sexual restraint as a means of protecting his “manly essence”. Tebow, as much as he resembles Rocky, similarly embodies a deranged general bent on destroying the world via nuclear holocaust. For both communicate exclusivity, a kind of separateness that either makes one a lunatic or a hero, depending on the story that gets told. Ripper’s declaration and Tebow’s press conference both posit them as unsullied by the masses, choosing (again) a higher purpose (whether it’s global destruction or God) that sets them apart from the rest of us.

In so doing, Tebow only heightens his desirability, and not just among the smitten young girls that his sponsors will no doubt soon be targeting. By publically declaring himself unavailable, he becomes more desirable, as anything put out of reach becomes. That’s not to say that he frustrates our fantasies of sexual intimacy with him — he does that and more. He frustrates our fantasies of intimacy with him at every level.

Intimacy, ultimately, is what it’s all about. Our outrage at athletes’ sexual indiscretions emerges from our fractured understanding of who these players are as people. Through heightened media exposure, we become involved in relationships with athletes whom we have never met before, with all the attending expectations and disappointments that accompany any relationship. In short, it’s not so much that Tiger Woods cheated on his wife Elin, he cheated on us, who thought we “knew” him better than that.

In the end, such “knowledge” is manufactured, over-determined image production. In the case of Tebow, it remains to be seen whether his highly public persona — devout, self-deprecating, and tantalizingly out of reach — is real or a product, or perhaps a bit of both. What is apparent, however, is how he reflects our own paradoxical need for an athlete who we can lavish our affections upon, yet who must in turn restrict his own reciprocation.

We love these players, but only if they can earn it. In the case of Tebow, earning it means denial. If he’s successful as a pro, however, that denial may not last long. As his popularity and salary increase, it may be too much to ask him to return so much attention with just a peck on the cheek.