Saturday, December 21, 2002

Sports&Culture File: As I suspected, the Tiger Woods controversy is now officially in beating-a-dead-horse territory, according to my editor who killed this column from me. If you're keeping score, that makes this a killed column about two killed columns...

Such was the self-described "intramural squabbling" at New York Times headquarters over two sports columns about Tiger Woods and the Augusta controversy that people seemed more interested in whether they ran than what they actually said.

I'm happy about the former but worried about the latter. Their tone was alarmingly dismissive, with one column basically saying that good-ol-boys-will-be-good-ol-boys, and the best you can do is just line up your putt and try not to notice. "Please, let Tiger Woods just play golf," Dave Anderson wrote. "He's not a social activist." The controversy "isn't Woods's fight any more than it's any other golfer's fight,” Anderson said. "I think there should be women members," he quoted Woods as saying, "but it's not up to me."

The controversy may be annoying to Woods, but it happens to be a matter of credibility. Imagine if Woods were a vegetarian but had dinner at a steakhouse. "Hey, I'd rather they didn't serve big slabs of meat," he might say," but the restaurant will serve whatever it wants to serve. I just eat here." To which Anderson might chime in: "C'mon, he's a hungry customer, not a waiter. Just let the man eat."

The problem is that being a sports star isn't like being president, where you choose to run and people vote you in. To be a superstar is to be a leader, like it or not. Your influence is like social currency you receive right along with your seven-figure checks, and you spend it one way or another no matter what you do. "I am not a role model," Charles Barkley famously pleaded in a commercial several years ago. Sure he was. So is Woods.

Still, athletes and columnists often try to separate sports from the social dynamics that shape them, carving out an escape world that has no context in the real one. This seems pretty silly. Jackie Robinson couldn't pretend he was just a baseball player. Muhammad Ali wasn't just a boxer and Howard Cosell just an announcer. Jimi Hendrix and Madonna couldn't pretend they were just musicians. They were all symbols of social change, and they knew it. For Woods to say he's "just a golfer" seems delusional. You have a responsibility to the society in which you have such a prominent place.

Without that awareness, you allow your fans to get cynical about your integrity. A few years ago Woods made a commercial for Nike where he said, "There are still courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin.” How crassly commercial and transparently hypocritical to speak out against discrimination only when you get a Nike check for doing so.

The difference, many point out, is that Woods isn't a woman. But in Augusta's case, racial and gender discrimination are cut from the same cloth--old-fashioned values from another era, to which the club stubbornly clings as if out of courage. Had Woods come on the scene before 1990, when Augusta invited its first black member, would he still have used the "just a golfer" line to wash his hands of it?

The most common remaining complaint, voiced by Harvey Araton, the Times' other initially silenced columnist, is that feminists have bigger fish to fry than worrying about an elitist upper class club like Augusta--ignoring the symbolism such a seat of power would carry.

USA Today's Christine Brennan, whose column prompted Martha Burk to write a letter to Augusta in the first place, recently reported that Burk has spent most of the last few months making speeches about an international women's rights treaty, working women in America, and other issues not sexy enough for media saturation. But when Burk grants interviews to reporters about Augusta topic and answers their questions, she gets written off as a self-promoter and a zealot.

You fight the battles you can fight when they're right in front of you. That's what Martha Burk is doing. It's what Tiger Woods should be doing too.

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