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Thursday, December 10, 2009
Updated: December 12, 6:14 PM ET
The Tiger Zoo

By Bill Simmons
ESPN.com

Tiger Woods

With five weeks remaining in the aughts, pre-teens, double zeroes or whatever we end up calling the 2000s, the title for "Biggest Sports Story of the Decade" was up for grabs. Michael Vick? Tim Donaghy? The Mitchell report? The Artest melee? Barry Bonds? Pat Tillman? Eagle, Colo.? Roger Clemens? Andre Agassi's admission that he won Wimbledon with a weave? You could have made a case for any of them.

And then ... Tiger happened.

Game over.

I'm calling it the "Tiger Zoo" instead of "TigerGate," only because we have to break the habit of slapping "gate" at the end of everything. But the Tiger Zoo nailed every gotta-have-it component for a big-time story with legs. First, it involved one of the most famous living athletes. Second, it started definitively with a specific incident -- and not just any incident, but something that made us say, "Wait, this seems fishy, I wonder what really happened here ...," and quickly became more complex than we imagined. Third, it built steam over the next week, crossed into the mainstream and dominated conversations, e-mails and tweets. Fourth, it transformed our collective perception of a famous person and made us re-evaluate every opinion we had about him. Fifth, it grew so enormous so quickly that everyone with a forum (radio show, column, blog, whatever) felt obligated to come up with an angle on it.

Sixth, it doesn't show any signs of slowing down; if anything, it's gaining steam like a hurricane plowing toward Florida. Seventh, it involves three of the gotta-have-it basics in any gigantic story: sex, (possible) violence and a (possible) cover-up. Eighth, there's an unanswerable question looming over everything: Even if Tiger did cheat on his wife, should it matter to anyone other than them? (My answer: It shouldn't. But that's the rub of being a public figure. If you don't want to be a public figure, don't do commercials, don't cover yourself in Nike logos and don't sell a video game with your name on it.) And ninth, it's a conspiracy-friendly saga that lends itself to all kinds of inventive angles, an absolute must for any story to maintain dominance.

That last point cemented the Tiger Zoo as an iconic story. Maybe Michael Vick's fall from grace was mildly incredible on paper, but there were no real layers to it. The facts came out, Vick's reputation was tarnished, he paid a price, and that was that. People across America weren't having arguments at cocktail parties about Vick, nor were they spending dinners breaking down facts and spouting opinions like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay debating the NFL draft.

But Tiger? Put it this way ...

You will attend a holiday party this weekend. You will start talking about Tiger with one or two other people. A few others will drift over saying, "Are you talking about Tiger?" Within a few minutes, the circle will be eight-deep. Conspiracy theories will be flying as Elvis' "Blue Christmas" plays in the background. Somebody's girlfriend or wife will say, "If that ever happened with [my man], I'd go after him with a golf club." Everyone will laugh. Eventually, you will start talking about Obama or the Saints or something. And then an hour later? The same conversation will happen in another part of the room.

In a way, that's been the most unfathomable part of this story. Tiger Woods dominating the conversation at a holiday party??? For years, nobody had an interesting take on him other than, "Wow, that guy's great." I even wrote an entire column in 2002 titled, "Tiger: What Can You Say?" He designed it that way, avoiding the media other than generic news conferences and cream-puff interviews designed to promote himself or a product. (Like this "10 minutes with Tiger" piece I wrote in 2006.) We knew little about his personal life beyond "married a Swedish nanny, lives in Orlando, has two kids." Not since DiMaggio had an athlete managed to stay this famous and this private at the same time. Hell, he named his yacht "Privacy." He relished it.

Tiger Woods
A few weeks ago, what did we really know about Tiger? Not much other than his skills on the golf course.

Of course, he also relished the spoils that came with his immense fame ... and that's where it became a problem. On Thanksgiving night, the superstar who controlled everything suddenly had something he couldn't control. The subsequent two weeks illustrated, in ugly detail, every problem with journalism right now. There are no lines anymore. There is no middleman or filter. Stories change constantly, sometimes four or five times per day, and the accuracy of those stories doesn't totally matter as long as there's a story in the first place. On Thursday, three different friends forwarded me a clip of a porn actress bragging for 90 seconds about an alleged tryst with Tiger six months ago. Not exactly the most credible source.

Did I watch the clip? Of course. I couldn't help it. The source of information no longer matters, just the information itself. We all do it. We all send the e-mails and texts, and we all read them.

Watch this, this is probably not true but still crazy.

Read this, might be a kernel of truth in here.

This would be so funny if it's actually true.

In the pre-teen double-zero aughts, these mega-stories are like Maximus in "Gladiator," covered in blood after a fresh kill and screaming at everyone sitting in the Colosseum, "Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?" We don't want to be crammed into the Colosseum, but we can't help ourselves. We also never imagined that Tiger would be wearing the Maximus outfit, and maybe that's the bigger issue here.

See, we spent 12 years following a guy we didn't know at all. We had little to no connection to someone who was better at golf than we were at anything. We checked tournaments on Saturdays and Sundays thinking one thing: "How is Tiger doing?" We invested an inordinate amount of time supporting someone who made it clear that he didn't care about us unless we were buying one of the products he endorsed. He was fine with the arrangement, and so were we. We got to watch him play golf. He got the trophies, the trophy wife and the spoils. Everyone was happy.

And yet ... we wondered about him. Little stuff. Why couldn't he learn how to successfully high-five his caddie? How did he end up with a Swedish nanny? What did they have in common? What were his hobbies? How did he spend his time while recovering from knee surgery? Why did his temper keep bubbling to the surface this year? Who were his friends? Could he hold a conversation during dinner? What mattered to him? You wonder these things when someone you don't know -- someone you can't even get a feel for -- keeps popping into your life for big chunks of time. By shutting himself off and stripping himself of anything that could be perceived as interesting, Tiger inadvertently made himself interesting. He also opened the door for a feeding frenzy if anything ever went wrong.

Something went wrong. The feeding frenzy happened. And I was one of the feeders. I digested this story whole, every morsel -- true, untrue or half true. I discussed it with my friends more than anything happening with my four Boston teams combined. I tossed out as many conspiracy theories as anyone. I found myself fascinated not by his alleged cheating, but by his arrogance that none of his misdeeds would ever surface ... because, after all, I am Tiger Woods. I couldn't believe how badly his "team" handled things these past two weeks. I got a kick out of talking heads and writers arrogantly dispensing life advice like Dr. Phil wannabes. I practically drowned in all the perspectives being fed to me from different people "in the know." Like this exchange from three days ago ...

Guy In The Know: "Tiger's biggest mistake was not having a cleaner."

Me: "A cleaner?"

Guy In The Know: "Yeah, someone who cleans up messes."

Me: "Like the Wolf in 'Pulp Fiction'?"

Guy In The Know: "Kind of. Like, he shouldn't have been the one making that call to Jaimee Grubbs. It should have been made for him."

It's right out of a movie. Literally. A cleaner. That's just one of the reasons why this story won't stop being interesting any time soon. It's the biggest sports story, but also the weirdest, and the one that makes me feel the worst about myself.

I wish I didn't care. I wish I wasn't gossiping about it like a 10th-grade girl. I wish I could say, "You know what? It's between his wife and him, we need to stay out of it." But there are just too many wrinkles to this baby. The biggest star of this decade ended up in the biggest sports story of the pre-teen double-zero aughts.

Are you not entertained?

Sadly, I am. And so are you. Sounds like the perfect time to break open a special two-part mailbag. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

Q: In 2059, do you think Discovery or the History Channel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tiger's car crash with Tiger Week? It could be all documentaries about his rise and fall, including a new special called "The Dawn Of Black Friday" that uses new-wave forms of CGI, satellite equipment and forensic evidence to figure out exactly what happened with the car crash. Which reminds me: What do you think happened that night?
--Bill S., Los Angeles

SG: OK, I cheated and wrote that question myself. Couldn't help it. Everyone has their own theory about the night of Nov. 26 at Tiger's house, splintering us into various camps like a modern version of JFK's assassination. We will never know what happened. And that's what bothers us.

We can all agree on the following things ...

1. The combination of the National Enquirer's story about Hookup No. 1 (Rachel Uchitel, revealed on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving) and US Weekly's story about Tiger's voice mail to Hookup No. 2 (Grubbs, revealed eight days later, that asked her to change her greeting because his wife found her number in his cell phone) would indicate tension in Tiger's house. To say the least.

(Note: In my house, my car "accident" would have happened the same night as the Enquirer story. And also, I would've had to explain to police why I tried to jam my BlackBerry down my throat.)

2. It's impossible to crash your own car leaving your own driveway that you've left a million times unless (A) you were drunk or zonked out on painkillers, (B) you were asleep in the car and sleep-drove it, like a form of sleepwalking, (C) you were fleeing for your life as your furious wife clubbed the back of a car with a golf club, or (D) you have no hand-eye coordination at all. We can rule out only D.

3. Tiger's wife broke the rear windows on his Cadillac Escalade with a golf club. We don't know if this happened before or after the crash, and we don't know why she was holding a golf club in the first place, or even if she was screaming, "YOU DESERVED IT, YOU [EXPLETIVE]!" while triumphantly waving the 9-iron, but she definitely did break the windows. Tiger even admitted this and she told the police she did it to pull him from the vehicle. Although he called her "courageous" within that admission. Which seems like a stretch. The neighbors were much more courageous. If my next-door neighbor crashed into a tree, and I looked out my window and noticed his wife standing over him and holding a golf club, I would double lock my doors and not leave my house.

(One wrinkle here that hasn't been mentioned enough: It makes sense that she didn't break the driver's window or passenger's window to free him. She would have shattered glass all over him. By shattering the rear windows, she prevented any glass (or less glass) from hitting him. You know, assuming she did this after the crash, and not as he was driving away and she was chasing the car while swearing at him in Swedish.)

4. Neighbors found a shoeless Tiger lying next to his crashed vehicle, with his wife hovering over him ... and he was snoring. That's what they told police. TMZ (and other outlets) also reported that Tiger was in and out of consciousness for six minutes. That's a long time when you think about it.

(On the other hand, it's TMZ. With all due respect, TMZ isn't exactly operating under the same rules as Woodward and Bernstein in the mid-'70s.)

5. In Florida, if police suspect even a whiff of domestic violence, the law reads "the decision to arrest and charge shall not require the consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties." For three days following the crash, the Florida Highway Patrol tried to interview Tiger about the crash. Each time, he refused to allow them in the house.

(Note: That smacks of either "I'm Tiger Woods and I don't need to explain myself" or "I need to wait for these scratches on my face to heal before anyone sees me," with no in-between. So it's either incredibly arrogant or incredibly revealing. I am leaning toward arrogant. As always with these things, the cover-up ends up being more dangerous than the incident itself. Unless you killed your ex-wife and a waiter. Then it's a tie.)

6. The accident happened around 2:30 a.m. and didn't leak to the media for more than 12 hours.

(Also incredible. How does this not leak right away? You can go to TMZ on any Friday or Saturday night and see live footage of Lindsay Lohan taking a leak in the plants in front of STK. This story took almost 13 hours to come out??? Really? We need an Orlando branch of TMZ, apparently.)

7. Tiger's wife gave birth to a daughter (now 2 years old) and a son (10 months). You're reading the same guy who once premiered my buddy Sully's "Twelve Percent Theory" in this same space: that every childbirth makes a woman 12 percent less sane until the kids can fully function on their own. So if you have two kids, you're batting at about 76 percent sane.

Anyone married with two young children can back me up: You don't mess with your wife, in any way, shape or form, during the 12 months after that second kid is born. Her hormones have gone haywire. She isn't sleeping enough. She's dealing with the new baby, the suddenly wounded ego of the first kid who doesn't feel special anymore, and whether she can handle two kids at all. She's trying to lose the weight from Baby No. 2, but she doesn't have enough time to work out yet. So she hates herself and hates you for doing this to her.

You aren't walking on eggshells around your wife during this stretch; you're walking on razor blades. Every comment has to be carefully considered before being spoken. For instance, here's a typical exchange with a mother of two young kids who has a baby 10 months or younger:

Husband: "You look really nice today."
Wife: "Why today? Why did you have to say today?"
Husband: "I just meant ..."
Wife: "So I don't look nice on any other day?"

That's the Twelve Percent Theory in action. Again, you can't anger your wife during this time under any circumstances.

There's a chance that Tiger has a fleet of nannies who deal with his kids, nullifying the Twelve Percent Theory to some degree. I don't think this is true for a simple reason: Tiger's wife was a nanny. Former nannies are less prone to hire a fleet of nannies because they know firsthand how attached a baby can get to a nanny. I think his wife carried much of the load herself. That would also explain why Tiger's mother was reportedly there on Thanksgiving. Not just for the holidays, but to help out. Right?

(I know, I know. I am throwing crap against the wall and hoping it sticks. On the other hand, you found yourself nodding the whole time. I'd bet anything. So let's say that Mrs. Tiger is hands-on with the kids. Fine.)

Anyway, the mix of "facts we know" and "things we perceive from those facts" left a little wiggle room and led to four accepted explanations emerging after the accident. I am leaving out any far-fetched explanation along the lines of "Tiger was going out to buy crack" and "Tiger had been furious at that fire hydrant for months and it was only a matter of time before he went after it."

Camp No. 1: "The Argument Gone Wrong" Theory

The story: Either Mrs. Tiger stews about the Enquirer story and whatever she found on his cell phone, but she can't react for two days because family is visiting ... OR, she reacts on that Tuesday, and then something else happens Thanksgiving night (maybe a holiday text from one of Tiger's harem that she sees) that causes her to flip out. Either way, she's ticked off. She sulks through dinner, then they put the kids down, and it's just her and Tiger. She confronts him. He storms off and texts someone as he's driving, forgets to look up and crashes the car ... OR, he's driving away, she runs out after him, he gets distracted and crashes the Escalade. She sees/hears the crash, runs down to make sure he's OK, can't open the door, runs back to the house, grabs a 9-iron, runs back down the driveway, breaks the windows and pulls him out. You know the rest.

The issues: Tiger's mother was in the house and would have heard them fighting had it escalated to that degree. Also, why would a mom with two kids be awake at 2:30 in the morning, much less arguing? Which leads us to ...

Camp No. 2: "The Feeding Gone Wrong" Theory

The story: Dinner, bed. Everything is fine. Around 2 a.m., the baby starts crying. She brings him downstairs for milk. Tiger's cell phone is sitting on the table. Because he's an idiot and one of the five dumbest adulterers of all time, he still doesn't have password protection on it ... OR, he does have a password, only she hacked it. Either way, she sees a text she shouldn't see. (One other variable here: One of his bimbettes may have just called his house and hung up.) Either way, it leads to the same argument and same results.

The issues: Same as in Camp No. 1. Slightly more plausible to me, though.

Camp No. 3: The "She Tried To Kick His Butt" Theory

The story: Everything unfolds as in Camp No. 1 or Camp No. 2, but much more heated -- and maybe even with some scratching -- and ends with her chasing him out of the house and breaking the windows (followed by him crashing). This was my initial reaction, and yours, and just about everyone's.

The issues: Too easy. It's like saying Oswald killed JFK. Ties everything together a little too easily and conveniently. And as I mentioned earlier, the benevolently broken rear windshield makes more sense than you'd think.

Camp No. 4: The Painkiller/Ambien Theory

The story: Two pieces to this puzzle remain unexplained. First, how could Tiger crash his car without the air bags deploying? And second, why was he snoring after the accident?

Consider how hard it would be to crash your car, do significant damage to the car AND knock yourself out without the air bags going off. You'd have to crash without ever touching the brakes. Which makes me think he was asleep when the accident happened. The snoring would certainly back this up.

Tell me if this scenario sounds plausible ...

Tiger and his wife go to bed. He takes Ambien to fall asleep. Maybe he took more than that. After all, the guy had major knee surgery and might still be popping painkillers for all we know. (An admittedly reckless Daily Beast story speculated on this very topic.) The baby wakes up, leading to "The Feeding Goes Wrong" theory and Tiger's 76 percent sane wife going bonkers on him. She kicks him out of the house ... OR, he storms out. He gets into his car, but again, he's half-asleep and zoned out on Ambien. While debating where to drive, he falls back asleep, then in some sort of sleepwalking-type moment, starts the car and starts driving it ... OR, simply knocks it out of gear so it starts rolling. That would explain how the car crashed without going that fast, as well as his injuries (he would have hit his head), the snoring afterward, then his wife's reaction.

I vote for Camp No. 4. Then again, I'm the same person who believes that Oswald was firing at JFK while, at the exact same time, someone else Oswald didn't know (working for the CIA or the mafia) was also trying to shoot JFK from the grassy knoll. We will never know the truth. Ever. Just one of the things that make it the biggest sports story of the pre-teen double-zero aughts.

Part 2: The All-Tiger Mailbag

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball", is now available.