Politics, Sports and Redemption

The list of public figures who have fallen from grace is a long one. The list of those who have successfully returned to the limelight is much shorter.

This week with Tiger Woods, we witnessed an extremely high-profile case of a public figure taking steps to repair his reputation and put his troubles behind him.

Tiger wasn’t perfect at his news conference on Monday. There were questions he did not answer fully, and his responses to others were vague. But overall the image he conveyed – which is the one that will remain in people’s minds – was a positive one. His performance at the news conference was well-planned and well-executed – in sharp contrast to the public relations disaster that ensued after he crashed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree outside his home on Thanksgiving weekend. He was calm and personable. He acknowledged his mistakes, and he appeared ready to move ahead and return to public life and the world of competitive golf.

Tiger Woods wasn’t the only public figure in search of redemption this week. Although he didn’t create the same media frenzy we saw in Augusta, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was making news again amid rumors he may run for political office – something that seemed like an impossibility when he resigned from office two years ago because of a prostitution scandal.

Spitzer’s comeback also appears to be well-orchestrated.  About nine months after his resignation, he made his first foray back to the public arena by writing an op-ed article on financial regulation for The Washington Post. Two weeks later, he began writing a regular column for Slate and he soon expanded his resume by teaching at the City College of New York and lecturing at Harvard. More recently, Spitzer has been making the rounds of popular cable television talk shows.

According to New York Times reporter Jan Hoffman: “Eliot Spitzer’s swift return to the bully pulpit may say as much about us – a scandal-fatigued public’s diminishing expectations of its officials – as it does about Mr. Spitzer’s restless inability to stay gone.”

If Hoffman is right, then what message should we read into the reception former Newark Mayor Sharpe James received when he returned to New Jersey this week after serving time in a federal prison in Virginia? The Associated Press reported that James received “a hero’s welcome” from a crowd of 300 cheering supporters with signs that proclaimed “no crime committed” and “Sharpe for Governor.”

Regardless of whether the individual in question is Sharpe James, Eliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods, there is real dilemma when a fallen public figure attempts to rehabilitate his or her public image.

On one hand, these individuals are at fault -– criminally, morally, or both. They have no one to blame but themselves, and they must face the consequences for their actions. On the other hand, they pay a price for their misdeeds –disgrace, embarrassment, loss of job, even time in jail. Do they deserve a second chance or should we continue to punish them?

I believe there are benefits to giving second chances – not just for those who receive them, but also for those of us who grant them. Had Tiger Woods never played a round of golf again, we would have been denied the opportunity to watch the man who may be the greatest golfer in history. If Eliot Spitzer returns to office, perhaps he can strengthen existing efforts to crack down on white-collar crime and securities fraud. If there are people in Newark happy to have Sharpe James back, can their enthusiasm be translated into something positive for the city?

Redemption is a term most often related to religious activities and beliefs, but it also can apply to public figures who fall from grace. Some redeem themselves; others do not. Some get a second chance and turn it into something positive. Others squander their opportunities. But if they never receive that second chance, there can be no hope for redemption.

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