When Golf Channelcommentator Kelly Tilghman joked on-air during the second round of theMercedes-Benz Championship that ambitious young players should "lynch[Tiger Woods] in a back alley," she set off yet another incidence of thestagecraft that passes for racial discourse in this country, with a tragicmoment followed by the requisite scenes of accusation, remorse and demands forthe protagonist's head, all backed by a chorus of conflicting voices echoing tothe rafters. There were plenty of soliloquies but distressingly little dialogueand no catharsis. For her part Tilghman was held accountable through a publicscolding by the punditocracy and a two-week suspension by her employer; but forme, there's another, far more interesting character in this drama--TigerWoods.
For Woods thecontroversy over the use of the word lynch has graver implications, and not forthe reasons one might think (especially since the last year has brought a rashof incidents in which nooses were placed in buildings and schoolyards acrossAmerica to reinforce campaigns of hate, fear and intimidation). Whether Woodslikes it or not, the episode serves to remind him, and everyone else, thatregardless of how he attempts to transcend race with his accomplishments on thegolf course, he can never fully escape his status as a person of color. Muchthe way the fried-chicken-and-collard-greens joke Fuzzy Zoeller made at the1997 Masters pushed Woods into the role of African-American Golfer, Tilghman'sgaffe reinforces his heritage and its burdens, lumping Tiger in with theestimated 5,000 men who were lynched in America between Reconstruction and theCivil Rights movement of the '60s. He can continue to call himselfCablinasian--a word he invented to represent his mixed racial makeup ofCaucasian, black and Asian. But, significantly, when it came time to decide ifand how Tilghman would be punished, it was a leader from black America, AlSharpton, who took it upon himself to represent Woods and other blacks bycalling for Tilghman's firing.
For his part Tigerwas quick to forgive and forget, saying through his agent, Mark Steinberg, thatthe incident was a "nonissue" and later releasing a statement thatsaid, "Regardless of the choice of words used, we know unequivocally thatthere was no ill intent in her comments." No kidding. It's obvious thatTilghman meant no offense--hers was a crime of terminal glibness, not racism.The more pertinent question is: Why didn't Woods take offense? Maybe it wasbecause last week also brought news that Woods made an estimated $100 millionin endorsements in 2007, an income derived from his stature as the brighteststar in the largely white, corporate-friendly world of golf and not as aminority agitating for social justice. That's why the implication of Tilghman'swords, like that of Zoeller's before them, may be more alarming to Woods thanher poor judgment.
In the endTilghman was brought down by her failure to grasp or respect the undercurrentof meaning attached to the L word. But isn't Woods guilty of the same thing? Byso blithely dismissing the incident, isn't he contributing to the offense?Woods doesn't have to become a civil-rights spokesman, but he could have atleast acknowledged that he understands the meaning of the word, and howpowerful and hurtful it remains. In other words, wouldn't it be nice if foronce Woods saw himself as the heir not only to Jack Nicklaus but also to JackieRobinson?
January 21, 2008
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