Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Just Do It, Tiger

Michael L. Butterworth (Ph.D., Indiana University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Associate Director of the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University, where he researches and teaches about the relationship between rhetoric, democracy, and sport. He blogs regularly at The Agon.

NFL legend and long-time social activist Jim Brown has called out Tiger Woods. Again. Frustrated by what he perceives to be Woods’ persistent refusal to engage with matters of political substance, Brown recently told HBO’s Real Sports that Woods is “terrible,” when viewed as “an individual for social change.” He went on to compare Woods to Michael Jordan—he of the famous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” defense (when asked why he would not endorse a Democrat for the Senate)—stating, “I know they both know better, ok? And I know they both can do better without hurting themselves.” The question that many will ask in response is: should Woods do better?

Americans in general, and American sports fans in particular, are quick to defend someone like Tiger Woods on the grounds that he has the individual right to be apolitical. Indeed, this was the predominant sentiment found in the public reaction to the controversy that emerged last January, when Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman said that in order for young golfers to challenge the dominance of Woods, they should “lynch him in a back alley.” Once Woods called the remark a “non-issue,” many argued that the issue was resolved. Yet Tilghman’s “apology,” Woods’ acceptance of that apology, and the public’s general indifference to the insensitivity of the initial comment all failed to acknowledge the central problem: it wasn’t that Woods was the subject of a racial attack—anyone paying attention would have grasped that—it was that terminology that evoked the historical trauma of racial violence was used irresponsibly in a public forum. The outrage expressed by some wasn’t an effort to protect Woods from racism, it was an effort to give voice to the millions who continue to bear the traces of a violent racial history.

Tiger Woods appeared to be indifferent to the kind of pain that the word “lynch” might evoke. This is probably because, in spite of dramatic efforts to introduce Woods in 1997 to the public as a transformative civil rights figure (Nike’s “Hello World” campaign), Woods has long maintained a de-racialized persona (as Brown suggests, not unlike Jordan). Woods is perceived by many to be a transcendental figure, largely because he allows the majority population to evade any feelings of guilt or responsibility for the millions of racial minorities who are not—and cannot be—accepted as he has been. As Davis Houck argues, Woods keeps his “blackness” hidden from view, thus making him the embodiment of a “post-racial society” (you didn’t think those comparisons between Woods and Barack Obama were an accident, did you?).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I think Woods does have a responsibility to respond when he becomes figured into political discourses. It may not always be fair to him as an individual—why, after all should he be the spokesperson on all matters relevant to the African-American community if he, himself, does not identify himself primarily as a member of that community?—but Woods does not operate autonomously. Rather, he benefits handsomely from an institutional arrangement of sports media, organizations, fans, and corporate sponsors, most of whom simply want Tiger to hit golf balls not make political speeches. It is important to note that golf, and sport more broadly, encourages political silence and quiescence even as it exploits various socio-political dynamics for its own advantage: it continues promote its signature event—The Masters—at a private club that excludes women, it colonizes land and resources both in the United States and around the world as it carves and shapes its courses, and it hides from a racial history that until very recently was a source of tremendous shame—the PGA legislation against African American golfers that wasn’t repealed until 1961, the use of only black caddies at Augusta National until the early 1980s, the decision to play the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek—a private club excluding African Americans—in 1990.

In other words, although Tiger Woods can be understood as a symbol of racial progress, he is simultaneously a symbol of our limited capacity to engage race substantively. Too often our desire to achieve a “color blind society” is nothing more than a call for racial minorities to stop acting as if they are not white. Thus, non-white Americans are commonly trapped in a double-bind: first, they are marked as “raced” because they are not white; second they are expected to render their race invisible by conforming to white norms. In such a culture, the bottom line for Woods is simple: be grateful that you get to be a professional athlete, appreciate that millions of white Americans like you, deny the relevance of race, keep your mouth shut, and play ball. Is this a recipe for making millions of dollars as an individual? Of course it is, and Woods plays the part all too well. But more importantly, Woods has wasted numerous opportunities—as one of the most recognized people on the planet—to make the case that we can, and should, find better ways of living together. Just imagine what impact Tiger Woods could have if he combined his prodigious talent, charisma, and marketing persona with the political consciousness of Jim Brown. Come on Tiger, just do it, won’t you?

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