Last summer, when activist Martha Burk went to war with Hootie Johnson and his no-women-allowed policy at Augusta National Golf Club, someone made the mistake of putting a microphone in front of Tiger Woods. The club is the annual home of the Masters (this year's tourney will start April 10). But despite his mastery of the golf course, Woods has never been particularly insightful when queried on social issues.
Augusta National officials, Woods told the press, are "entitled to set up their own rules the way they want them. It's their prerogative to set it up that way. It would be nice to see everyone have an equal chance to participate if they wanted to, but there is nothing you can do about it. . . . It's just the way it is." When asked if he would feel the same way if such a policy were applied to Asians and African Americans, Woods told the press that he would.
Burk, among others, was stunned. "If others had taken that view," she noted, "he'd be a caddy at Augustahe wouldn't be a player." A New York Times editorial suggested that Woods should think about leading a boycott of the Masters. "Top players present and past, starting with Tiger Woods, also need to ask themselves whether winning the Masters next year will be such a crowning achievement," the Times opined.
Some pundits then pilloried the Times and Burk for singling out Woods, arguing that he was being picked on because he is of African American descent. While very few people want to say that Woods should carry an extra load of social activism because of the color of his skin, the truth is that, in presenting himself as apolitical, Woods is actually breaking with a long line of athletes who've taken political stands.
Paul Robeson, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, and Arthur Ashe chose not to be passive when social issues swirled around them. African Americans, in general, have been so linked to the struggle to advance the Constitution from theory into reality that it's become part of their identity. Throw in the fact that Woods is the best golfer in the world, and it's no surprise that rabble-rousers have come knocking on his door.
"It's like asking the question of Arthur Ashe, 'Is apartheid your issue?' " says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation (which was founded by Billie Jean King in the 1970s). "What's the difference between Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods? Both are black men at the top of their game. One is very educated about the issues; the other prefers not to be as outspoken. I'm just a great believer that there are very few people who get a platform, and it's a shame when that opportunity is wasted. What a difference you could make in the world."
But in this era in which racism lacks the blatancy of Jim Crow, African American athletes are increasingly turning a blind eye to tradition. Kenneth L. Shropshire, a professor specializing in sports issues at Penn's Wharton School of Business, argues that in Woods's case, a deluge of corporate sponsorship opportunities makes it even harder for him to take anything that even resembles a controversial stand. "I think what Tiger is confronted with is, 'I want to make as much money as possible, so I have to be apolitical,' " says Shropshire. That sort of acquisitive stand may line Woods's pockets with green, but it also sends a message of accommodation to young African Americans who see themselves in Woods.
Shropshire, who is organizing a conference in April that will examine race and activism in sports, says that seeing John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise their fists at the 1968 Olympics was "empowering," and he worries that Woods's apoliticism could be just as contagious. "I was a young teenager when all that stuff was happening, and every time we had an opportunity, we were raising our fists," says Shropshire. "If I see Tiger saying, 'I am not going to get into it,' does that add to the apathy today? Probably so."
Critics of that interpretation argue that Woods is just a great golfer and shouldn't be asked to do anything more. But it's Woods himself, and his handlers, who have always played up the notion that he was a social phenomenon extending beyond the world of golf. "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity," his father, Earl Woods, once said. The elder Woods, displaying a stunning gift for hyperbole, told the Times at one point that his son would have more impact than Buddha, Gandhi, or Mandela. "He has a larger forum than any of them," Earl Woods said, "because he's playing a sport that's international, because he's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracleshe's the bridge between East and West. . . . I don't know exactly what form this will take. But he is the chosen one."
Earl Woods's assertion that Tiger could eclipse the impact of Mandela may seem laughable, considering the golfer's vanilla social conscience. But those who laugh would be wrong. Woods is very capable of displaying a backboneif there's a buck to be made out of it. After Woods signed a big-time contract with Nike, one of his commercials featured him lamenting that the same golf courses where he's revered today would have shunned him in years past. Such commercials indicate that Woods and his handlers view social change as little more than a marketing tool for a bigger paycheck. It's not surprising that the other partner in this marriage of opportunism is Nike, a company that once declared that the revolution was basketball.
If the past is any guide, those athletes who've managed to become bigger than their sport have done so by not being defined, and ultimately confined, by sports. Ali wasn't just a great boxer, he was the symbol of a movement. Woods's father has set his lofty sights on Mandela, but Tiger himself would do well to get some education under his belt, if he's to fulfill such promise. Unfortunately, Woods is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dumb jocks. When asked her opinion of Title IX, a clueless Jennifer Capriati once replied, "I have no idea what Title IX is. Sorry."
Lopiano argues that much of the blame rests with the athletes' handlers. "I think that agents do not impress upon their celebrity talent the obligation that they have and the reality of what they are going to be confronted with," she says. "Public figures do not have choices. By their very definition they are role models. Whenever an athlete says, 'I don't know what Title IX is,' or fails to take a position in his sport, it reflects poorly on his intellect and his image."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.