(CNN) — As prodigal golfer Tiger Woods resumes the world’s No. 1 ranking, his chief sponsor, Nike, unveiled a slogan Tuesday that provokes robust debate on what is redemption and has Woods attained it.
“Winning takes care of everything” is what Nike declared on its social media outlets after Woods completed his long climb back to the top ranking, more than three years after his extramarital affairs ruined his marriage and embarrassed him. Woods and ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, have two children.
Many fans and consumers are now raging against the new campaign by Nike, which stood by Woods in his fall from grace as most other sponsors dumped him.
“Will not buy anything Nike again,” wrote Melissa Santa-Cruz of Wisconsin on Nike’s Facebook page.
“THIS AD MAKES ME SICK!” wrote Julie Drake, a high school teacher who said she will use the ad for a classroom discussion. “Shame on you!”
Others, however, endorsed the slogan.
“Love your Ad Nike,” wrote Brian Edwards. “Keep up the good work.”
The passionate opinions roil during a week when redemption is on the minds of Jews celebrating Passover and Christians preparing for Easter.
The controversy grows from whether winning indeed absolves transgressions — and even prompts a return to grace. The narrative plays out in different ways for different public figures.
“I think that winning, especially in Tiger Woods’ case, really does change things because it reminds people why they fell in love with him years ago. It was for his game and his ability to consistently make those tough shots over and over again. That’s why we’re in awe of Tiger,” said CEO Melinda Travis of PRO Sports Communications, a strategic communications and crisis management firm in Los Angeles.
“Does it erase what he’s done? No. But when is it enough?” Travis said. “It’s easy to criticize from afar, but when you sit across from someone who’s experienced public humiliation and a fall from grace and, in Tiger’s case, a breakup of an entire family and a permanent change in the way people view him, that’s a pretty high price to pay.”
The slogan refers to how Woods has motivated himself to become the top golfer again, Nike said. He last held that rank in October 2010.
“Tiger has always said he competes to win,” Nike said in a statement. “When asked about his goals such as getting back to number one, he has said consistently winning is the way to get there. The statement references that sentiment and is a salute to his athletic performance.”
In professional sports, winning can indeed overshadow a lot of quandaries, said sports analyst LZ Granderson, a CNN contributor.
For example, a winning coach won’t be fired for players accused of sexual assault or facing too many DUIs, he said.
“Usually a coach is fired because they’re not winning,” Granderson said. “So it may make me cringe as a parent, I can’t help but think of the fact that winning does seem to solve a lot of problems, and if you’re losing, that’s when everything else is more highlighted.”
Analysts also cite how quarterback Michael Vick, who served an 18-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to dogfighting, is now playing for the Philadelphia Eagles. Linebacker Ray Lewis faced murder accusations — later dropped by prosecutors — in the deaths of two men after the 2000 Super Bowl in Atlanta; this year, Lewis and his teammates on the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl.
“A lot of people have short memories when the person who had these issues starts winning,” said Robert Tuchman, president of Goviva, a sports and entertainment marketing firm. “As you can see with Ray Lewis, it doesn’t take much to forgive and forget. America loves the story of a person falling down and getting back up and then maybe falling down and getting back up again.”
Ethics expert Bruce Weinstein pointed out that Nike contradicts itself because it stopped sponsoring cyclist Lance Armstrong after he admitted to doping in winning seven Tour de France titles.
“This is an amazing story in the worst sense,” said Weinstein. “This is a company that dropped Lance Armstrong after mounting evidence made it pretty clear Lance Armstrong won by cheating. So Nike made it clear that winning does not take of everything.”
In fact, Travis’ firm is representing Tyler Hamilton, a cycling teammate of Armstrong. Hamilton was among those who broke from Armstrong, who then threatened to sue him. Hamilton also wrote about his own use of performance enhancing drugs.
Travis declined to comment on Armstrong and Hamilton, but she spoke generally about how she helps athletes overcome setbacks.
“Look, everybody makes mistakes and sometimes they just need help in putting it in context for people: Here’s what led me to the decision. And then let people judge it,” she said.
At issue for Woods is whether he, like so many other celebrities whose professional lives are damaged by the revelation of personal failures, has redeemed himself as merely a public figure — or as a human being, too?
“Certainly in his job, it’s a redemption story,” said David W. Miller, a Princeton University business ethics professor who directs its Faith & Work Initiative.
“Whether it is for him as a human being and his character, I don’t know. Time will tell. Someone else will be the judge of that,” he added.
Miller cited how winning didn’t take care of everything for basketball star Kobe Bryant, who faced accusations of sexually assaulting a woman in Colorado in 2003 and later settled a federal civil lawsuit for an unspecified amount of monetary damages.
“You have an overly long list of people who are ‘winning’ — whether they are in sports or a box office draw or selling platinum albums,” Miller said. “The world tells them they’re wonderful and they’re No. 1 and their sense of probity and respect for others or your own self tends to evaporate.”
That’s when a lot can go wrong, Miller said.
“I applaud Nike for taking up his rebirth,” Miller said about Woods.
But, he continued, “the slogan sort of falls on its face, and Tiger Woods is exhibit A for the case because it didn’t care of everything three years ago.”