Archive for Thursday, September 7, 2006

Commentary: Tiger won’t take stand when it counts

September 7, 2006

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It's been nearly 10 years since he said it, and you'd think with all that he's accomplished, I would have let it go by now.

In 1997, a young superstar named Tiger Woods - who at the time was being hailed as a cross between Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe - appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Fresh off his first Masters victory, Winfrey asked Tiger to explain his racial-ethnic background. And Tiger's answer touched off a divisive racial debate that pokes at some sore spots even now.

For the first time, we heard the word "Cablinasian," - a term Tiger used to clarify his Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian heritage. Tiger went so far as to break down his racial makeup by percentages.

Who knew such a precise racial calculator existed?

I have never forgotten that, and the memory seems especially poignant now that Tiger is showing us the greatest span of achievement we've ever seen from a professional athlete. Better than Michael Jordan. Better than Muhammad Ali. Better than Pete Sampras.

Tiger's five consecutive PGA Tour victories have made some people cast Tiger not only as the greatest golfer and athlete of all time, but the most transcendent athlete ever.

And this is where I strongly object.

To me, a transcendent athlete is someone who can achieve greatness inside sports or out of it.

Put succinctly, transcendent athletes take a stand. They aren't worried if their beliefs make them unpopular. The great ones all were that way - Ashe, Robinson and Ali.

Is Tiger?

The answer is no.

Tiger is the most gifted golfer ever to play. He has won a lot of tournaments and made a lot of money. But if he takes a stand on anything that doesn't have to do with greens, it will be his first.

Tiger has said many times he's proud to have broken golf's color barrier.

Proud, yes. Comfortable, I'm not so sure. In the face of substantive issues, Tiger often wilts like his competitors.

Tiger's Cablinasian comment indicated he wanted no part of serious racial discussion. African Americans were hurt because it seemed as if Tiger, born to a black father and Thai mother, was attempting to downplay his black roots.

Maybe it wasn't totally fair to blame Tiger for that because it's clear we live in a blended society and he does have a responsibility to equally represent his Asian and African-American background.

But the Cablinasian episode showed Tiger only is interested in giving answers that suit mainstream America.

Remember when Tiger was asked his thoughts on the Lochinvar Golf Club in Houston, which had a policy of not allowing female members?

"I can't be a champion of all causes," he said.

When the issue of women playing at Augusta National arose, Tiger's position was weak. He said he supported both sides. That is a curious response.

No one is disputing that Tiger's presence has given golf broader appeal and that his face in an overwhelmingly white sport forced golf to recognize its racial issues.

But drawing casual fans and hawking American Express cards doesn't make him a transcendent figure.

For Tiger to be in that category, he's got to speak up and take risks. And I don't mean using his 3-wood as a driver.

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