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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 should "lynch him 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 the comments.


Al Sharpton 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 that."


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 several lifetimes.


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.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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