Nobody escapes in this one. Not you, not me, not them. You'll likely be upset, so right from the giddyup, I'll say "sorry."
Has your sports hero lately been exposed as a groper? Or a doper? A gutless moper? Take comfort then, or pain, in this:
Twenty centuries ago, upon his return from victories on distant fields, a Roman general would be paraded through the streets of the city. Ordinary citizens thronged to cheer him, to see him, to touch the hem of the great man as he passed. All of Rome lay before him like a banquet. But in the chariot with him rode a slave, there to whisper in the conqueror's ear a warning, "All glory is fleeting."
All glory is fleeting. At least that's how the story gets told in the movie "Patton." It may or may not be historically accurate, but like all great fictions it delivers a sobering cautionary truth. There have been many versions and variations of that sentiment over the years, from the warning murmured for centuries to every new pope, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, "Thus passes the glory of the world," to the mournful midnight injunction sung by Kansas to every beerful, tearful college sophomore everywhere, "All we are is dust in the wind."
How bright and brief we all burn is a thing well worth remembering, especially the morning after Hollywood's gala Employee-Of-The-Year awards. That "Big Blue Pocahontas 3-D" lost the best picture statuette to "Jarhead 2: Kaboom" was a mild surprise in a terrible film year, and a triumph of that weird Beverly Hills love/hate relationship with war. (Hate it because it's war!/Love it because it's reliable box office!) "All Quiet on Western Avenue" also beat "Precious: The Uncomfortable After-School Special With Almost No Product Placement," once again reminding us all that while war is hell, serving a knuckle without greens is a crime against sense itself.
And as great a trade association con as the Academy Awards have always been ("It's an academy, see? Classy!"), they exceeded even themselves this year, not just with the predictable self-reverential self-reference, but by insisting we now attend (or at least rent) 10 Best Picture movies rather than only five. Doubling down on greed and our gullibility is an old Louis B. Mayer scam left over from the Depression, a Hollywood trick in a rotten economy to drive a few more suckers to the ticket window.
And it is that collision and confusion of conquering heroes and carnival barkers that brings us briefly back to the stew of our cultural troubles.
Movie stars and quarterbacks, handsome and courageous and good: the people we so much want to be like. And so much want to be liked by. No matter the truth of their character. In that way nothing has changed since high school, or even since the discovery of fire. The laws of attraction and imitation remain immutable, and a square jaw and a strong back go a long way to concealing a weak and pockmarked soul.
But the heart wants what it wants, as do the trousers, which is where all the trouble begins.
Gawker and TMZ, Facebook and Twitter, your iPhone and my Blackberry now guarantee the instantaneous 5 megapixel transmission of every jugheaded indiscretion.
The hint, whiff, suspicion or suggestion of any and every drunken pass or scandalous parking lot hookup, every bad choice and moral failure -- on the clock or off it -- is now in play, monetized by a nation of semipro paparazzi.
The only thing more scurrilous than the act itself -- whatever it is or is not -- is the failure to sell it to someone. Shameful!
Exemplars and cautionary tales, inhabiting as they always have the same skin, the same space at the same time, are in a dire state. Even in this age of post-post-feminism, pity poor Tiger Woods, lonely as Pinocchio, the morally inert not-very-bright puppet handcrafted in the workshop of his father's ambitions.
For those of you still confused about why TW matters, and why his personal morality matters, consider this: When you make a religion of consumption and a church of commerce -- as we have done here in America since the late 19th century -- you make along with it a clergy. And Tiger Woods was sold to us all not just as The Best Golfer Who Ever Lived, but as a high priest in that racket of heavenly exchange; a reliable intermediary between us and the corporate exaltations of the American Dream. The moneychangers are the temple.
Now, after The Fall, we await Tiger's return. The rumor mill last week had him headed for Doral. He's loading his clubs in the trunk! Nope. Fifteen minutes later came some gossip down the data stream that he'd surely play Bay Hill. Or maybe Augusta. Who knows?
The difficulty of Tiger's "comeback" -- taken on a scale of 0 (never left) to 10 (resurrection of Jesus Christ) -- likely will land somewhere between 2.3 ("Charlie Sheen Says Sixth Rehab Equals Success") and 3.8 ("Michael Jordan: Serious About Baseball"). There's a price to be paid for being only human. The shock is how low a price that is.
This is the true market economy of the Infotainment Age. My colleagues and I in the vampire press, and a billion zombie bloggers, will continue to feed your bottomless appetite for fairy tales and filth as long as you keep clamoring to see, hear and read them. Such is the dignity of supply and demand.
The lead story everywhere, and forever, back to the Garden, has always been "Who's Bonking Who?" Sorry, but I can't write that. I have my standards.
It's "Who's Bonking Whom."
If you Google the letters u and s in sequence, the first listing in the search results is neither "United States" nor "Ulysses S. Grant" nor "US Airways." Nor is it any of the tens of thousands of various departments, divisions, offices or adjunct institutions of the US government.
Nor is it even the simple plural pronoun, "us."
It is "Us" magazine.
We have met the enemy, etc.
Whether this is merely ingenious search engine optimization, or reflects our literal addiction to the insipid, is the central postindustrial mystery of the species.
So there you go: wide-screen vanitas, and the death rattle of common sense and decency; hero worship and zero worship; the reproductive hierarchy of the high school cafeteria and what we trade of ourselves for dreams that won't ever come true.
Big Ben tolls the hour. It is very late.
And a question arises:
Are the bodyguards there for his protection, or for ours?
Thank goodness all glory is fleeting.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at email@example.com.