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January 28, 2008
Calling Out Tiger Woods
The weeks-long brouhaha over Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman’s use of
the word “lynch” reached its next logical point last week, when football
legend Jim Brown called out Tiger Woods for failing to speak out right
away about the comments, and for waiting until it was “politically
correct” to say something.
Originally about an
announcer’s unfortunate use of a phrase, the controversy has mutated
into one about media ethics and now, finally, about how much
responsibility the world’s most dominant athlete has to right the wrongs
of the world.
A quick overview,
for those who haven’t been following it: On a January 4 Golf Channel
broadcast, in which she and others were discussing how the rest of the
PGA field could compete with Woods, Tilghman suggested that the players
in a back alley.” Through his agent, Woods, who described himself as a
friend of the anchor, initially said he didn’t read any ill will into
approached the situation with his usual class, issuing a strongly worded
statement in which he demanded Tilghman be fired – although he appeared
totally unaware that Tilghman is a female.
Tilghman was not
fired but was suspended for two weeks, and the story appeared over . . .
until Golfweek magazine ran a cover story about the controversy,
illustrated with a noose and the headline “Caught in a Noose.” The
resulting outcry over that resulted in the firing of the magazine’s
editor, Dave Seanor.
Last week, around
the same time that Tilghman returned from suspension and issued an
on-air apology, the retired football star and longtime political
activist Brown, in an interview with the ESPN morning show “First Take,”
ripped Woods for not being more out front after Tilghman’s comments.
This led to yet another debate over how much responsibility Woods has to
be a leader when it comes to social, or even political, causes.
Woods demurred in a press conference a few days later. Pointing to his
foundation, his numerous charitable efforts and other works, Woods told
reporters that “"I am socially active
every day of my life. He added on Wednesday, “I know there are
people who want me to be a champion of all causes. I just can't do
Tiger now finds himself facing many of the same accusations Michael
Jordan had throughout his career, when MJ was often criticized for
ducking out of politics, most notably when he refused to campaign in
1996 for Harvey Gantt, a Democrat who ran in Jordan’s home state of
North Carolina against virulent racist Jesse Helms. “Republicans buy
shoes, too,” Jordan is alleged to have said, although he did make an ad
in 2000 for presidential candidate Bill Bradley, at the behest of
Bradley’s ex-teammate Phil Jackson.
As Jordan’s successor as both the world’s most dominant athlete and as
Nike’s top endorser, Woods has been similarly apolitical throughout his
career. One could argue, of course, that by being a man of multiple
mixed races and taking over America’s whitest, most historically
exclusionary sport, Tiger has built up enough progressive good will for
But really, why should anyone have a responsibility to speak out about
anything? Should he want to take a position on every political or racial
controversy under the sun, Woods is perfectly within his rights to do
so. Should he choose to remain completely and totally apolitical, he has
every right to do that as well.
And besides – if the Bush years have taught us anything, it’s that
celebrities’ ability to affect social change is limited, at best. If it
weren’t, President John Kerry would still be thanking the success of the
Vote for Change Tour for his big win back in ’04.
In a GQ profile of Charles Barkley last March, the outspoken
ex-basketball star was depicted as taking a phone call from none other
than Barack Obama, and telling the candidate that he had just been in
Las Vegas with Woods, and that the golfer was “ready to become more
political. You'd be a great place for him to start.”
Woods has not, as of yet, followed through. Much as I would like to see
him on the Obama team, it’s not his responsibility to take up any
political cause. Telling him that he has to take a certain position,
just because I take it or you take it, is just not the American way.
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