Tiger’s burden

Must Tiger Woods support every p.c. protest, no matter how trivial, just because he's benefited from the "struggles" of others?

Topics: The New York Times, Tiger Woods,

The New York Times says Tiger Woods should boycott the Masters Tournament to protest Augusta National Golf Club’s policy of excluding women from membership. Jesse Jackson agrees.

I’ve been boycotting the Masters since 1964, but do I get any love for it?

The Times suggested in an editorial last week that Woods and CBS, which has televised the Masters since 1956, stay away from the event, thus sending a message to Augusta National that discrimination will not be tolerated. The Tiffany Network said, in effect, “Right. Thanks for sharing. We’ll see you in April.” The Times, as has been noted gleefully elsewhere, didn’t say anything about skipping the Masters itself. Evidently, “a tournament without Mr. Woods would send a powerful message that discrimination isn’t good for the golfing business,” but a tournament without the Great Gray Lady wouldn’t.

Woods, who can become the first man to win three straight Masters, also declined to carry water on this one. “I think there should be women members,” he said, “but it’s not up to me. I don’t have voting rights, I’m just an honorary member.”

That’s not good enough for Jackson, who is threatening to organize protests at the tournament. “He’s much too intelligent and too much a beneficiary of our struggles to be neutral,” he said of Woods. “His point of view does matter.”

It’s an interesting question: What do we expect from Tiger Woods?

It’s actually a lot of questions: What are his obligations? Why do we expect more from black superstar athletes than from white ones? Black? The mixed-race Woods famously labeled himself “Cablinasian.” But the old one-drop rule is still alive and kicking when it comes to identifying public figures. When was the last time you heard Woods referred to as anything other than black?

Michael Jordan has long been criticized for his apolitical persona, while white contemporaries like Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky never were. Why is Woods, as the beneficiary of others’ struggles, required to fall in line with every political and social protest that touches golf when all we expect of white golfers is that they apologize in a timely manner for their racist jokes about fried chicken and collard greens? What player on the PGA Tour hasn’t benefited from someone’s struggles?



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Blacks in sports get held up to the standard of Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe, politically active men of conscience who happened to be great athletes. Woods hasn’t lived up to their standards. Then again, neither has anybody else.

Ali is a hero of mine, and I’d love to see Woods follow in his footsteps, even though I rarely waste a thought on Woods or the game he plays. It’s just that I’d love to see anyone follow in Ali’s footsteps. But I’m not holding my breath.

Woods has gotten a pass for his blandness from some quarters because of his age. He’s only 22, the thinking went, give him time. But he’s almost 27 now, old enough to have settled on some values and opinions, picked an issue or two to speak out on if he was going to. Maybe he is going to, but I’m not holding my breath for that either.

As the New York Times correctly noted, Woods is the most powerful golfer in the world, because he’s the best by such a wide margin. His absence from an event turns it into a minor-league affair. A Tiger Woods boycott is, in the golf world, a nuclear bomb. If he is ever going to start wielding his political power, it’s hard to argue that the Augusta National controversy is the place to start.

The Masters tempest began when Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, called this summer for Augusta National, a private club, to admit female members, and the club’s chairman, Hootie Johnson, eventually responded by saying there was no chance a woman would be invited before the April tournament, and that Augusta National would change its membership policy on its own terms, if ever.

I have a theory that you never would have heard a word of this if the club chairman weren’t named Hootie, but never mind that. Political scientists, psychologists and others who study the human condition have a word for this kind of public whizzing match: “dumb.”

Reasonable people can fall on either side of the question of whether Augusta National should be forced to admit women, but a reasonable person would find himself with strange bedfellows no matter what side he takes, forgive the gender-specific language.

Burk has a point in her argument that the Masters is such a public event that regardless of Augusta National’s private status, it ought not exclude entire classes of people. It looks bad, sets a bad example, gives off a bad vibe. It forces ordinary fans to tacitly approve of a policy that looks uncomfortably like garden-variety discrimination if all they want to do is enjoy a favorite sporting event. If this argument has no merit, then why did Augusta National finally begin admitting black members in 1990?

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that the chairwoman of something called the National Council of Women’s Organizations doesn’t have anything more important to get all het up about. Reproductive and contraceptive rights, family leave, equal pay, domestic violence, punitive welfare reform: There’s no shortage of issues a little more vital to the interests of women than whether or not, say, two female Fortune 500 CEOs get to join a golf club in Georgia that escapes the notice of the vast majority of us 361 days out of the year.

Burk’s campaign reeks of pointless grandstanding and p.c. weenieness. It’s sort of like when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stages one of its occasional dumb protests, like the one a few years ago when it called for the Green Bay Packers to change their name because of its connection to the meatpacking industry, and thus “animal bloodshed.” PETA pulls that sort of thing, and off in a lab somewhere, a rabbit that’s been blinded by repeated blasts of hairspray in the eyes says, “Thanks. Thanks a lot.” And even if you agree with the PETA folks that animals ought to be treated nicely, you find yourself wanting to strangle a squirrel just to spite them.

But if you believe that private clubs ought to be able to let whomever they want in and keep whomever they want out, you want to say to Hootie & Co., “Hootie, you’re right. Now invite a woman into the club, you chucklehead. You’re going to do it sooner or later anyway, and in the meantime you’re dragging the club and the tournament through the muck because you sound like a Neanderthal.”

Given Johnson’s exemplary record on women’s issues in the business world, it’s clear that this isn’t a fight between feminists and their enemies, it’s a fight between feminists and 2-year-olds. Johnson, who recently invited the University of South Carolina women’s golf team to play Augusta National as his guest, isn’t arguing against women’s rights. He’s screaming, “You are not the boss of me!” What a dolt.

It doesn’t help when Jesse Jackson chimes in, because, much as I hate to say it, he’s become a sort of poster boy for dumb protests, his campaign against the movie “Barbershop” being a recent example. Jackson made a good point about the Times’ call for a Woods boycott — “I don’t remember them saying to Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus to boycott the Masters because blacks are not playing” — but he’s become a self-parody, seemingly injecting himself into every controversy that comes down the pike, and thus lessening the impact of what he has to say.

If Tiger Woods is going to use his power, he’d be unwise to squander it on such a minor issue, one that affects so few people, that elicits the same kind of eye-rolling that meets most of Jackson’s pronouncements these days. “Forget about a few distaff executives getting into Augusta,” he might say, “let’s talk about the Bush administration’s attacks on Title IX.”

I think Woods should say something like that. I think the same thing about Phil Mickelson and Brett Favre and Mario Lemieux (an excellent golfer, by the way). Why aren’t we talking about them?

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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