Good for Nike. I mean its new dead dad ad, on Tiger Woods. It manages to strike a different note in the moralistic hysteria-fest around his return to this weekend’s Masters. Not just what it says but its tone. “I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. … Did you learn anything?” says the voiceover from beyond the grave, as Tiger looks directly into the camera. Check the diction: More proneinquisitive. “More” is relative, “prone” is detached, “inquisitive” weighs things, instead of denouncing them. Promote discussion … learn. As if the case isn’t transparent, there are things here to unearth and explore. What is the note struck? In a word: Buddhist, Tiger’s own religious background and his mom’s.

Compare this to Billy Payne, tournament chairman, who sounded as if he were talking about Spiderman, not Tigerman: “He forgot … that with fame and fortune comes responsibility. … conduct that is so egregious … he disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids. … Our hero did not live up to …” This is the voice of the bad dad, speaking for “us,” the American superego. It’s the timeless voice of U.S. sexual puritanism, 400 years on. If history repeats itself, first as tragedy (the Salem witch trials of 1692), then as farce (Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, in 1998), this is Farce: The Remake. The script recycled for the multiracial Obama era.

If I sound jaded, it’s because it’s so predictable. A rigid, puritanical Christianity, which is one of America’s religious default categories, requires regular falls into sexual depravity so as to feel meaningful, or just maintain its lame version of joie de vivre. All those fallen preachers serve a purpose. So do teen pregnancy rates higher among conservative Christians in the U.S. than other groups. It’s not “ironic” that Sarah Palin’s teen daughter had a baby; it’s convenient — for the ongoing dramas of sin and salvation. You can only sustain such high levels of dudgeon if it’s all well-rehearsed and happens on cue. Sin, prompted by the devil, is the engine behind it all.

What’s next — sexual rotisserie leagues? Why not? If you can detach from the realities of actual sports, to immerse totally in owning teams that don’t exist and tensely follow their fabricated schedules, why not add in the sex capers: doing it, getting caught, sponsors who cancel on you. It’s no more fantasized than drafting your athletes — and more titillating.

Is there an alternative to diving into this moral mud bath? Well, you could say, It’s only sex, which sounds more European. I don’t think that’s an easy place to reach, given the role of vivid imagination in most sexual betrayal. In fact, it sounds kind of Buddhist. But I’d say Tiger’s Swedish wife, Elin, has handled it well, including the anger. No press conferences or public updates. She keeps her counsel, or confines it to those near her. I don’t think that means she doesn’t feel, but it can’t possibly be handled in the public U.S. style without losing real touch with the feelings. She’s been admirable, perhaps helped by not quite getting it, from “their” point of view.

I don’t think it helps to bemoan how trivial it all is, compared, say, to the death and chaos in Kyrgyzstan, which most of us hadn’t heard of until two days ago (the country, not the chaos), and still can’t spell. This stuff is part of our world, and Tiger’s dad(‘s ad) is the best response so far.

I also lack patience for the moralizers who denounce the Nike ad as trying to coin money from this mess. You could also condemn medieval pietàs for using human sorrow to promote Christianity. All art has its economic context. Many ads are art, others are failed art. This one gives me new respect for some of those ad people. I knew they could be smart (good ads are usually smart art). But I don’t think I knew they could be wise.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.