In his defensive half-apology yesterday, Tiger Woods went out of his way to turn his wife, Elin Nordegren, into the heroine of his latest adventure. The “rumors” that she scratched up his face and smashed the rear window of his Escalade were “malicious” and “false,” he said. In fact, she “acted courageously when she saw I was hurt.” Should we believe him?
News reports have mentioned the big, obvious reason why Woods would want to erase the image of his wife in a jealous rage wielding a golf club. His endorsement deals, reportedly worth billions, depend on his reputation as a “boring” guy, as he likes to call himself, a family man with a wife and two kids and no bouncy, boozy mistress or other tabloid bait in his life. But there is another less obvious reason for Woods to lie (if that’s what he’s doing): Because of Florida’s domestic-violence laws, admitting to the police that Nordegren in any way harmed him would virtually guarantee that the glamorous Elin would be led out of their mansion in handcuffs, even if he protested it.
In 1991, Florida became one of many states to set up a pro-arrest policy in domestic-violence cases. For years, feminist advocates had complained that police treated domestic-violence cases as private family matters and assumed the abused spouse would never follow through and press charges. Beginning in the 1990s, laws began virtually to force the police to take action. The new statutes direct police to figure out who was the “primary aggressor” in a domestic dispute. They make a call based on a checklist (bruises, disparity of physical size), and then they make an arrest. Howls of protest from the abused spouse are to be ignored: “The decision to arrest and charge shall not require the consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties,” the Florida law reads.
This all seemed very clear and firm, except that an unexpected problem arose. Police could not always tell who the primary aggressor was. Sometimes they just arrested both parties; sometimes they arrested one party based on minor evidence of violence. Liza Mundy’s great Washington Post magazine story from 1997, on a comparable domestic-violence law in Virginia, opens with a scene of a cop called to the scene of a dispute between a husband and wife. The officer contemplates a tear in a man’s breast pocket and decides it counts as “probable cause”—the new standard—for mandatory arrest of the wife. “Oh God. Oh God,” the man says. “Can I go on record that I don’t want to press charges right now?” But it’s too late. His wife is in handcuffs, on her way to the back of the squad car. Now, women are arrested in about 20 percent of domestic-violence cases. As such scenarios played out across the country, the updated domestic-violence laws accidentally created a new mythical woman: the Female Abuser. Never mind that the sociological research does not really support her existence in any great numbers.
A close legal reading of Woods’ statement suggests that he desperately does not want his wife to fall into this category. “He is going out of his way to protect her from any concern that she’s committed a crime,” says Kimberly Tatum, a professor and domestic-violence expert at the University of West Florida. In Woods’ narrative, the car accident, not Nordegren, caused his injuries. She used the golf club to get him out of the car after he’d crashed. “She was the first person to help me,” he said. “Any other assertion is absolutely false.” (He also then says that “this situation is my fault” and that he won’t do it again, although it’s unclear what, exactly, he’s taking the blame for in this version. It’s his fault he crashed his car? His fault he didn’t rescue himself?) So far, Woods has refused to talk to the police. (In some cases, police charge alleged victims with failure to cooperate, particularly in cases where the victim recants a statement. But this is very rare.)
Florida state troopers are trying to get Woods’ medical records to investigate whether his injuries are consistent with a car accident or with getting bashed with a golf club. If they find the latter, then Nordegren could well be in trouble. The golf club would be considered a weapon, and Nordegren would be charged with felony-aggravated battery, says Tatum. Because of Florida’s domestic-violence statutes, the police would have no choice but to arrest Nordegren, if they have “probable cause” to suspect her, whether Woods pressed charges or not. She would also not be eligible for bond but, rather, would have to stay in jail until her first appearance. She would then join the pantheon of celebrity mug shots, alongside Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. And the much smaller pantheon of celebrity female abusers: Tawny Kitaen, the chick from the Whitesnake videos charged in 2002 with committing domestic violence against her then-husband major league baseball player Chuck Finley; Tonya Harding, the ice skater who allegedly threw a hubcap at her former boyfriend; Kim, the demented true love of Eminem; and the wife of Phil Hartman, who shot him in bed. Plus, of course, Lorena Bobbitt.
The Woods case brings up the uncomfortable problem with the new domestic-violence laws, which is that strict gender equality often confounds common sense. It is impossible to imagine Tiger occupying the same cultural brain space as Rihanna, with Nordegren playing Chris Brown. If Tiger had been chasing down his wife with a golf club and she had shown up with bruises, even if she had cheated with, say, K-fed, we would be a lot less ambivalent and complacent. If Nordegren had then issued a statement calling her husband her courageous savior, we would be outraged and filled with disdain and pity. All of these gender-dependent reactions make some instinctive sense. But legally speaking, they are beside the point. The law no longer makes the distinction.
Men’s rights groups, for their part, have already made the Woods case their cause célèbre, proof of their long-held, if unsubstantiated, view that women are just as likely to abuse as men. “Of course, we could hope this will call attention to DV by women, except I think it’s illegal to say women commit DV,” wrote one sardonic commenter on Mensactivism.org. These groups have always admired Tiger because of his close relationship to his father and because of the time his daughter, Sam Alexis, jumped out of her mom’s arms and back into his. And they have used gender equality to their advantage, arguing that women can be just as powerful and manipulative as men. But in any reasonable sense, this isn’t true, argues Jack Straton, a Portland State University expert in “the myth of the ‘battered husband syndrome.’ ” Although some women surely are perpetrators, as a rule, women tend to use violence as self defense, or impulsively, not as a systematic method of control the way male abusers do. They may slap a man or throw a cup of water at him, but they’re less likely to run through the usual cycle of domestic abuse: seduce, punch, beg for forgiveness month after month. Studies that say otherwise tend to equate all acts of violence—a tear in the breast pocket, say, with a shove down the stairs.
At this point, Tiger’s only choice is to skirt gender equity and opt for chivalry. He’s already said his car accident or whatever happened was his fault, and he could elaborate just enough to make it seem as if his wife were defending herself, in which case she would be off the hook. (Of course, he’d have to do it subtly enough that he would not seem threatening—also an endorsement downer.) Under Florida law, Woods could also use the most common out for people who regret having involved the police: admit that, yes, she did hit him, but say it was an accident—which means, in this case, coming up with whatever is the golf-club equivalent of walked-into-the-door.
AP Video: Tiger’s Alleged Mistress