Celebrity Culture and the Woods Number

In an amusing exchange at Grantland, Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell discuss the evolution of celebrity culture over the last half century.  After an amusing exchange about an incident involving Johnny Carson some time in the 1960s, Gladwell hits upon an idea:

GLADWELL: Well, it made me think that the average level of celebrity behavior must have been much worse 50 years ago than today. So suppose we channel our inner Nate Silver and come up with a universal celebrity misbehavior metric. We grade each public incident on three dimensions, each measured on a scale of one to 10. First, the stature of the celebrity. Second, the degree of impairment at the time of the accident. And third, the severity of the transgression. Your grade is the sum of those three scores.

SIMMONS: Hold on, hold on — we need to name this thing. And as much as I want to force-feed O.J. into the acronym, I love your “universal celebrity misbehavior” metric because “UCM” is such a strong acronym. I could see Bill James re-releasing Popular Crime just to reassess every famous murder with UCM.

GLADWELL: Why has it taken so long for the Moneyball revolution to come to Hollywood? I don’t get it. Because the UCM finally makes it possible for us to make rational judgments about scandals. So, take Tiger Woods’s run-in with his wife’s 9-iron. As a celebrity, Tiger is a 10. His impairment, a sex addiction, maybe painkillers, and probably alcohol, is also a 10. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that cheating on your Swedish model wife with so many hookers that she may have believed it was in her best interest to smash the back window of your SUV with a golf club is, at the very least, a nine. That’s 29 out of 30. Future generations will now be able to look back on that night and understand that it was the Apollo moon landing of the modern tabloid era. In fact, as much as I like UCM, maybe we should refer to this score as someone’s “Woods Number” in honor of the contemporary champion.

To put that 29 in perspective, I think that in the normal course of affairs, it’s really, really hard for anyone to score above a 20, for the simple reason that as your celebrity score rises your ability and willingness to max out on the transgression and impairment scales fall. I have no doubt, for example, that, say, Lindsay Lohan or Axl Rose are routinely putting up sevens and eights on transgression and impairment. But they just don’t have the stature they used to.

SIMMONS: I love “UCM,” but I really, really, really love “Woods Number.” When someone accomplishes something so fantastic that it gets named after him or her, that’s the holy grail — whether it’s the Fosbury Flop, the Mendoza Line, Tommy John Surgery, the Gordie Howe Hat Trick or the Woods Number. I wish there were a way to make it more golf-y, though. Like, Oscar Pistorius was probably a 7 + 5 + 10 for 22 out of a possible 30. Does that mean he finished eight shots over par? You’re right, too soon. Regardless, let’s all agree that O.J. Simpson accomplished the only perfect 30 Woods Number. Congratulations, Juice.

As we used to say back in the old days, read the whole thing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Very good. I’ll go with the “Woods Number” also as every time I see ‘UCM’ i automatically add a ‘J’. Too many years working on the Fort I guess.

    ps: My favorite Carson story is the time Zsa Zsa Gabor came on with her cat and asked Johnny “Do you vant to pet my pussy?”

  2. DrDaveT says:

    There’s a dimension missing here that matters, I think — namely, how clean was the celebrity’s image at the time the transgression was outed? Tiger Woods had a pretty squeaky-clean image with the general public, partly due to the Golf Industrial Complex that has grown up around the influx of megabucks that Tiger personally created.

    Lindsey Lohan could sacrifice babies to Baal in the middle of Grand Central Station at this point, and people would just roll their eyes. She has no altitude remaining to fall from. Tiger not only maxed out the who and the what, he also maxed out the surprise factor. You have to go back to young Vanessa Williams to find a comparable degree of surprise.

  3. Rafer Janders says:


    That’s a good point. You can get away with anything, so long as people expect you to do that sort of thing already. The cleaner your image, the less you can do.

    Taylor Swift spending a drunken night at a Berlin sex club would be a scandal. Lady Gaga doing it would be a complete non-event (as we can see by the fact that she has indeed done it and yet no one cares).

    Both young women, both major celebrities, and yet one could do it with no problem and the other would be handling the fallout for years.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Were you watching when Ed Ames threw the tomahawk and stuck it right into the silhouette’s … uh … straddle? I seem to remember it was the longest sustained live laugh in TV history, at least at the time.

  5. RGardner says:

    I got over half-way down the ‘read the whole thing” before I started skimming at about the point where they said who is reading all this, vice skimming, LOL. The NBA stuff wasn’t all that interesting to me (Kobe), but this article is worth the 15+ minutes, yes, 15 plus minutes. It will make you think. Totally amused by the idea of a sports czar. Why not? (um, why?)


  6. Franklin says:

    Yeah, pretty good read. Gotta wonder if those Carson stories are true.

  7. John Burgess says:

    @DrDaveT: I think the ‘clean factor’ should probably be a multiplier rather than a mere addition.