The golfer and the president both represented the promise of a fully integrated nation. But will the demise of one affect the other?
- The London Observer, Sunday 13 December 2009
As the great Tiger Woods steps down from the global stage, however temporarily, it is an interesting moment to consider the interplay of celebrity, sex, race and the corporatisation of sport. At first, I found all the hoopla difficult to understand. Tiger Woods always seemed so unremittingly phlegmatic that it's hard to imagine him as the "sexposed!" "horndog!" described in all the tabloids.
But my image of Woods comes entirely from advertisements for Accenture, Gillette and Nike. My image is of Tiger the corporate logo, Tiger the symbol of well-executed "swoosh," Tiger the carefully designed avatar of business acumen, family values and gentlemanly athleticism.
At the same time, he is a celebrity, heretofore a fairly subdued member of the velvet-roped elite, but a celebrity none the less. And sooner or later, there is nothing our culture loves more than ripping stars to shreds. If the role of the corporate sponsor is to gild our icons, the role of the paparazzi is to slice and dice those bodies beautiful into a million little quivering pathologised pieces.
Add in the fact that Tiger Woods is the embodiment of America's complicated racial aspirations. He was the face of so-called "biracialism" before Barack Obama. No one is ever allowed to forget that his father was African American and his mother Thai. These things are still monitored closely in the United States. Our too-recent history of strict anti-miscegenation laws has endowed the offspring of such unions with a twitchy kind of unresolved attention.
Only a few months ago, a justice of the peace in Louisiana refused to issue a marriage licence to a white woman and a black man because he thought such pairings were bad for the children. And just last week, Congress and the Justice Department were still debating whether to issue a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion who, in the 1900s, married three white women and was prosecuted for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.
Johnson was a complicated character, to be sure. Then, when boxing was still considered something of a white gentleman's pastime, Johnson's victories in the ring incited riots. Novelist Jack London issued the call for a "Great White Hope" who could best him; other voices issued the call to have him lynched. In recent history, it is the golf links that remain the playground of genteel white manfolk. Indeed, golf is the most racially segregated sport in America; access to courses is prohibitively expensive, so it remains the pursuit of the well-to-do executive class.
It should come as no surprise, then, that some measure of Woods's heroic status has been grounded not merely in the excellence of his game, but in the fact that he has been lionised as an "honorary white." He lives in a mansion in Florida, in a gated enclave. He married a Swedish model. His trousers are neatly pleated and nicely braided belts ensure that they do not "ride low." His T-shirts are tailored and, to all appearances, starched. When he transgresses, his wife takes after him with a very expensive nine-iron rather than the proverbial pot of boiling grits.
It is all proof, said one waggish radio broadcaster, that golf can turn almost anyone into "an old, retired white guy".
At the same time, Tiger Woods has also operated as a kind of answer to badly behaved basketball players like Dennis Rodman: he was cast as the well-educated, softly spoken, supremely non-threatening "Great Black Hope".
Woods was the rebuttal to those enduring images of the insatiable black Lothario, the antithesis of Jack Johnson, who famously taunted America with his inter-racial liaisons, boasted about his conquests and mistreated them publicly. (When asked by a reporter how he sustained his sexual prowess, Johnson is alleged to have responded that one must "eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts".)
Hence, Tiger Woods's fall from grace has intimations that reach far beyond his personal life. As we know, there's a great deal of money resting on Tiger the property. When he took leave to recover from reconstructive knee surgery last year, television ratings for golf tournaments fell 50%. Nike alone sells $600m-worth of golfing gear every year based largely on the qualities of play and personality he has brought to the game.
His fall has tossed him into the great media wood-chipper, however; in fewer than 10 minutes of television coverage, I heard comparisons with OJ Simpson no fewer than five times. Yes, OJ – the one whose wife was brutally murdered. But the only comparison I can see is that both Simpson, the face of Hertz, and Woods, the face of Nike, were configured by their corporate sponsors as good, assimilated black people who proved that we were a rainbow society. The reality of their lives was not what was being sold.
But for my money, Simpson and Woods's flaws are so substantively, so qualitatively different that the very mention of them in the same breath strikes me as really derived from some residual anxiety about black men married to white women.
OJ Simpson, although acquitted of murdering his wife, was known to have hit her on occasion. Woods, while admittedly a serial philanderer, is the one who was found semi-conscious and bloody, the windows of his car smashed by his wife in an apparent fit of high "rescue" dudgeon.
I suppose we'll never know what really happened on the night of 30 November 2009. It's not exactly truth be damned, but "truth" has become something of a commodity, whose value must compete against the gleeful media whoring of celebrity. But if the past remains murky and fictive, we can surely foresee what comes next. Now begins the ritual cleansing that is so much the script of America's teeter-totter between puritanism and prurience, sex and race, purity and penance. Whole industries are built upon impossible rectitude and grieving remorse, great falls from grace and elaborate rites of redemption.
But the most dangerous subtext in this otherwise delicious debacle is the great unspoken subtext: until 30 November, it had almost become a cliche that Barack Obama was the Tiger Woods of the political sphere. That perceived conflation of identity is what saddens me most about Tiger Woods's fall from grace.
Yes, he's human and yes, he is entitled to whatever private life he can salvage. But his underwritten role in our national pantheon served as the deus ex machina for the hope of a more integrated America, a more settled diversity that could be taken for granted, that was calming in its "post-racial" promise. The revealed precariousness of that promise is what has been most disheartening about the feeding frenzy of stereotype into which we are now sinking.
To quote William Blake's celebrated poem "The Tyger" – if wildly and completely out of context: "What the hammer? What the chain?/ In what furnace was thy brain?"
Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University