Winning can get an athlete plenty of desirable rewards. It can bring salary and endorsements. It can bring attractive romantic partners, both real and imaginary. It can bring free food and booze. But can winning absolve an athlete of his or her glaring sins and lapses in judgment? Nike thinks so, at least according to one of its posts on Facebook and Twitter that includes a photo of Tiger Woods overlaid by the words: “Winning Takes Care of Everything.”
Woods has been winning a lot lately, in his golf game and his personal life. Last weekend, he ended up on top of the leader board at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the tune-up tournament to next month’s Masters at Augusta National. That victory allowed him to reclaim the number one ranking in men’s golf, a position he last held in October 2010. In the few weeks prior, he had hit the links with President Barack Obama, and announced his romantic relationship with Olympic and World Cup skier Lindsey Vonn. But as to his winning before this streak, not so much since his personal moral failings involving infidelity, hypocrisy, and arrogance were exposed beginning around Thanksgiving 2009.
As for Nike, despite some recent unexpected blips in some markets, it continues to dominate the global scale for sports footwear and apparel. In the fiscal 2013 third quarter, the company reported revenues of $6.2 billion and profits of $866 million, an increase of 55% from the prior three-month period. This level of performance owes in measure to its business being based on “inspiration” and “innovation,” which results in edgy products and the ad campaigns that go with them.
In the grand scheme of things, though, why even worry about whether being a champion at banging a tiny ball around with a stick wipes the moral slate clean of prior sins? The answer has to do with the message conveyed about the moral power of a “winning” Tiger Woods. It’s a message that our society needs to reject.
When it comes to messaging, Nike gets it right more often than not—even when its marketing stokes controversy. But in the case of its newest ad, the one featuring Woods and five words that ring of that unforgettable scandal, Nike is wrong. And, for that matter, so is anyone who thinks that winning frees an athlete, owner, or team from ethical accountability.
Does winning forgive all transgressions? No way—and it doesn’t matter whether the transgressor is a top performer or a merely competent one. Still, those at the top need to set the bar.
Like it or not, society’s big winners—be it in business, government, the armed forces, religion, entertainment, politics, or sports—set the moral tone for the rest of us, especially young people. Their actions also serve as important opportunities for the public to gauge just how seriously ethics matters in the face of money, power, and success.
It is true that the biggest winners can often command the greatest attention. It is also true that we want to believe that those who win deserve to do so since our view of success is tied to our views about virtue and justice. But, in fact, there is no connection between winning and moral approbation. Bad people win all the time. We need to be well-aware of the fact that equating winning with morality leaves a lot of moral failure unchallenged and unremarked. That is not good for anyone.