A Tiger Most Tame by Corey A. Tyler
Had you placed a keen ear on the ground last March, you would have heard the rumble of 11 million or so people jumping up and down in their living rooms in unison. About ten minutes later, after Halle Berry became the first black woman to win the Oscar for best actress, you'd have sworn that a parade broke out in your backyard, when Denzel Washington roped his first Best Actor trophy, only the second such honor given to a black male. But if you did that a few months later, when one Eldrick 'Tiger' Woods was winning his second Masters title, you might have heard your termites making planes for the dining room table. Not the soundtrack for a moving mountain you heard a few months before.
Seemingly unbeknownst to the hundreds of columnists, talk show hosts, sports reporters and all those employed as cultural arbiters of what's hot and what's not in America is the fully functioning apathy toward Woods and his traveling circus of record breaking accomplishments among what should be (as is amongst those with a deep appreciation for the obvious) his natural audience.
America's 'Cabalasian' contingent - Tiger's hand crafted ethnic engraving - has yet to flex it's political or economic muscle to the degree that it can me measured against plain old black folks. Be that as it may, its those plain old black folks that Tiger is lumped together with Census-wise. And those folks, fundamentally, do not care what he does or how many times he does it; a hunch ratified to truth when won considers the community genuflect that followed Denzel and Halle. Or the one that regularly greets Venus and Serena.
To paraphrase the man himself, that's not just the way it is, but the way it should be. Tiger had a window of time, about two years roughly, when Black Americans were itching to claim him as one of their own. After his first major endorsement commercial appeared - a reminder that there was a time when someone like him wouldn't be allowed to walk the links he currently rules - the long love affair between himself and Black America seemed set to sail. It was the type of play that works best with public personalities in the black community, lifted from the 'I'm not just like you, I am you' book that former President Clinton wrote the appendix to. But his de facto endorsement of gender segregation last week at Augusta National Golf club officially closes that window, and, in retrospect, it might have closed even earlier in that lost weekend between the puzzlingly defiant 'I'm not black' pronouncements and the putting lessons for Rush Limbaugh.
It should come as no surprise then, that among those flabbergasted by Woods' thumbs up to keeping girls out of the Augusta clubhouse, plain old black folks weren't among them. The older ones, those who remember when the idea of a dark dynamo collecting trophies like nobody's business in a sport that practiced the type of segregation that Tiger now agrees with, might have shed a tear or two. But the rank and file of younger blacks, the demographic that was supposed to charge to the local sporting goods store ten years ago in search of the right putter, couldn't have cared less. It did however, strike a cord with the very people who deemed him a cultural icon in the first place: the media. Specifically The New York Post, which ran a picture of Woods in his Masters jacket (no pun intended) under the boldface headline of HYPOCRITE. Days later, The Ladies Professional Golf Association issued a statement certifying their disgust with Tiger's lack of social consciousness.
In his defense, Woods happens to be playing at the top of his game at a time when the modern civil rights movement seems not just out of gas, but also out of focus. The grand work of social and economic equality for ethnic minorities - specifically African Americans - has denigrated into the impassioned yet impractical call for federal reparations for slavery; an issue it can be safely said is the charge of a handful, but ignored by most. Given that, an athlete of his ilk, At this point in time, doesn't need to be a drum major for justice.
And yet, the crux of the swelling unease with Woods (which will grow as his Augusta-esque comment catalogue grows) is that whatever work is left to do could be authored and finished on his watch. If Tiger Woods decided to speak for against whatever the red-hot social issue of the day might be, he'd be heard. Due partly to his status as a star athlete, but, frankly, because the audience he enthralls every few weekends happens to be a patchwork of the people in charge. His CEO fan base could be lectured on proper accounting procedures. His pharmacist buddies could hear his thoughts on affordable prescription drug coverage for seniors. And, if he truly believed in his heart that the present paradigms for race in America are to restricting, the one guy who could put every racial designation conceivable on job applications throughout the land is the one he sees in the mirror every morning.
But alas, Woods has decided to be the very best golfer that ever played the game, and only that. And, as Stuart Smalley would say, that's okay. Many a man has committed himself too much lesser milestones. And, having staked his claim to not staking claims, he assures himself a life interrupted only by the need to deposit or withdraw his immense winnings, peppered with the occasional commercial. But by doing so, Tiger denies himself the type of mythologizing of a public figure that only black America can give. Feel free to test the assumption; ask you father about the time Larry Holmes beat the snot out of Gerry Cooney. If Grandpa's around, have a chat with him about Joe Louis. Then, try to work Tiger Woods' latest win into your next get together. You'll quickly see the difference. And soon, at some point, so will Tiger.
That point should come when the inevitable, unavoidable crisis - involving race appears in his life. A most lamentable event that visits every African American, in or out of the public eye, be they a sitting Supreme Court Judge or even, most recently, the King of Pop. What aforementioned work is left to do with the issue of race in America - blunting its importance but respecting its significance - appears most unsettled when a high profile chap like himself wades to deep in the waters of wrongdoing. Only then do the margins of race close in close enough for the individual to realize how near they always were. We've seen this sort of thing a few times in the last decade or so, most infamously when fellow athlete and golf enthusiast O.J. Simpson decided after a life off the run, to return to the huddle of plain old black folks. It will visit Tiger, as it eventually found Simpson, and Clarence Thomas. How it finds him, and at what point in his career is the only question.
When the time does come for Tiger to face up to his face, he'll most likely find himself in much the same company he's keeping now. Having officially joined that illustrious list of famous black folks that most blacks can't stomach (i.e. Thomas), Woods will have to deal with that impending moment of truth on his own. And therein lies another cruelty. The very people who rooted O.J. Simpson through two thousand yards of Buffalo sleet are now his most strident detractors. The sports writers, who first heaped hosannas on Woods when he first turned pro, routinely attach an op-ed next to his picture, citing the hollow glory of a champion without a challenger. Having sedated the casual fans of golf with his mastery of the craft, frustrating his most ardent supporters with his lack of a social backbone, and distancing himself from plain old black folks, Tiger might soon find himself tamed not by force, but by scorn. And, paraphrasing him once more, perhaps that's the way it should be. It's not all that unfair really. He'll leave the earth the greatest golfer of all time, and we'll finally have the definitive profit margin for what a man can reap once he's gained the world and lost his soul.
Corey A. Tyler can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corey A. Tyler
Thursday, August 8, 2002