Saturday, December 12, 2009

Let's Quit the Pulpittin'!


(He'll be back.  Just wait.)

I told a number of people that I was not going to comment on Tiger Woods, and have tried not to. However, with the continued media blitz that has become the "24hr Tiger News cycle" (ESPN has given him his own ticker on their family of networks) and the recent announcement that he was taking an indefinite leave from golf prompted me to write (outside of the 140 characters allowed me on Twitter).

Let me state from the outset--I am a Tiger Woods fan and have been one since I started playing golf in 1996.  Even before that, I was intrigued by the game as I watched Calvin Peete and Jim Dent as a kid. To get more exposure to the game, I worked as a caddy at Glen Echo Country Club, one of the oldest and historic golf courses in my hometown of St. Louis. Thus, I became quite aware of the culture around the game, the good and the bad. Historically, golf has not been that inviting to African Americans.  Despite that fact, we continued to play (shout out to Lee Elder and the brothers and sisters who played on segregated courses).

Tiger means a lot to the game. Not just in terms of money. I'm sure he gave me and so many other young golfers hope that we could not only play, but win. I watched his amateur rise and this meteoric ascension to become the face of the PGA and the creation his own industry (Tiger is a business and a brand name). I never thought there would be an athlete more popular than Michael Jordan--I was wrong.

I still remember laughing as I heard Jeffery Wright's character, "Peoples" in director John Singleton's remake of Shaft (2000), starring Samuel L. Jackson, where "Peoples" explained in one memorable scene how he loved golf remarking, "Tiger Woods...Tiger Woods--I like him."  After seeing that, I knew Tiger was indeed part of popular culture in ways I had not thought of. That said, I can separate my "fandom" from his actions and the world...or really the American media's response to him in the last two weeks.

At a time where we should be focused on healthcare reform, the two wars our nation is involved in, the dilapidated state of our public education system, the growing urban crisis in our cities, or just the crippled economy generally, every media outlet is focused on Tiger. Even a day after President Obama gave his acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize, more attention is focused on Tiger.  Why?  What does Tiger have to do with national security or job growth? Nothing. However, whenever the media can focus on frivolous scandal it will...remember the situation with Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates? More time was spent talking about Gates and the officer than Obama and his plan for healthcare reform. Anytime Americans can be distracted from larger issues, we get spoon fed garbage for "news" and like it. We even ask for more.

On the surface, Tiger's story is one of a marriage tried by the perils of infidelity, which alone is not uncommon, especially among high profile celebs. However, this story has grown into a saga all its own with everyone tuned in. Tiger's tale is also very complicated and nuanced. The attention to this situation is not just who Tiger is, it is more about the contested terrain of what he is.  The comedic genius of Dave Chappelle gave us the "Racial Draft" where he addressed this issue masterfully claiming Woods 100% African American. Whether or not Tiger self identifies as "black" or "African American" he is still viewed by many blackfolk as "one of us" in some way.  Not quite in the same manner that Ali, Bill Russell, Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Kareem, or Jim Brown were unapologetically black on and off the field of play, but I think the prism through which most blackfolk view Tiger is similar to that of OJ after the verdict.

The support and cheers for OJ after the verdict was about exposing a corrupt and unjust justice system that for far too long had aided and abetted death, destruction, and terror upon African Americans, going back to Justice Roger B. Tawney's inhumane and vile opinion that "the Negro has no rights the white man is bound to respect."

A large portion of us cheer on Tiger when he wins just as folk cheered on Jack Johnson, Ali or Joe Lewis in previous generations. Golf has continued to have this "white man's only" vibe that for many represents some of the last vestiges of segregation in public life. Remember Fuzzy Zoeller's comments to Tiger about having fried chicken at the Masters after his first win there in 1997, or the Golf Channel commentator who made the dreaded "lynch him" comment?  Tiger seemed not to be phased by any of it, electing to keep a low profile about each racialized episode.  Unfortunately, he was not afforded the same grace he gave.

Tiger created and maintained a gentlemanly demeanor...this premier competitor of competitors who, off the course, was a dedicated family man.  The only emotion shown there was that of outward love of his family. That was his image and it paid huge dividends.  Now that image is tarnished not just by what he did...which I am by no means condoning, but how it was sensationalized by the media. If these women that keep coming forward couldn't get their fifteen minutes of fame and the possibility of a quick check, you would have never heard about them.

I agree with Jack Nicklaus who, when asked about his thoughts on Tiger remarked, "It's none of my business." The American public should remember that.  The prescribed hypocritical puritanical notions Americans have placed on marriage...have been exacerbated by viral media coverage from TMZ.com to the so called reliable networks of NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN. Right now they all look the same when it comes to anything have to do with Woods.

We must remember Tiger is not an elected public official, nor is he a religious figure or cleric.  He is not a leader of a social movement. He is simply an athlete...and a damn good one at that. We have seen that he is a man--made of flesh and blood like the rest of us and capable of the same shortcomings that MANY of us have. Again, I am not condoning his behavior, nor particularly rushing to his defense.

What I am saying is that I am profoundly frustrated at the referendum on morality that has begun by media pariahs like Nancy Grace and so many more.  Our nation has more important concerns than what Tiger has been doing outside of his marriage. Unfortunately, in a world, or at least a nation, consumed by "reality TV" this omnipresent voyeurism takes hold and enables American passivity and ignorance about the things that really do matter, while keeping a healthy distance from our own accountability.

Will Tiger overcome this?  Yes. When he wins his next major tournament this will be a distant memory. If David Letterman can rise and President Bill Clinton can become as important as he was to the 2008 election and even afterward (and there is no mention of Monica Lewinsky), and if as my man Jay "Average Bro" Anderson writes, about how we don't associate infidelity with actor Morgan Freeman, Tiger can and will be back (check his post here). At the end of the day, if Tiger was white or his wife was black, this would not be an issue. Let's be honest here...America is still tragically fascinated and debilitated by the historical construction of race.

Tiger thought that he could redefine himself and the post racial debate.  He was wrong. Paul Mooney would call moments like this a "N*gga Wake Up Call" or that Tiger was caught up in "the illusion of inclusion"--to say that he believed that he was such a beloved figure that he had transcended race much like OJ believed he had. I'm sure Tiger thought this situation would just "go away"...in time it will, but not before Tiger is reminded not of what he says he is, but what society views him as.  If you think I'm overstating this fact, look at a few of the members of the PGA who have publicly denounced Woods, some writers, such as Hank Gola, are even calling for him to be banned from the PGA (read Gola's story here).

As I sit here and think about it...Tiger can deal with this as he chooses to. His first obligation is to his family and his family alone. He owes us nothing. Maybe if he had taken control of the situation in the manner in which David Letterman had his own scandal Tiger could have dodged some of the media hype. Maybe not. I just hope that he does not cower to society the way so many other black athletes have.  My advice, if I could offer any, would be to be to tell Tiger read about Jack Johnson...or better yet watch Ken Burns' documentary Unforgivable Blackness.  Learn some valuable lessons from his life and apply them to your own. You set the parameters of the debate and be self defining. I would address the media once and once only...never to speak of this topic again. Whatever you do, don't cower, don't hide.  Handle your family and get back to playing golf.  The haters want to see you walk away from the game. Don't give them the pleasure (but maybe he already has).

Outside of the racial, class, and gendered dynamics of this craziness, and the continued analysis I could provide (which I've done more than I wanted), I think I'll leave you with this hip-hop quotable.  On Jay-Z's, "American Gangster" album there is a tune called "Ignorant Sh*t".  The song rests on a slick "Between the Sheets" sample from the Isley Brothers.  Jay-Z mentions toward the end of the tune, "Now stop the bullshittin' Til' we all without sin, let's quit the pullpittin', c'mon!"
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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.negrointellectual.blogspot.com.