What Did Tiger Do Wrong?
By Brenda Wall, Ph. D.
We all know Tiger Woods as the phenomenal golf icon, who has set records that some in the pristine community of golf anxiously wait to see broken. Remember the great White hope? We have made a lot of progress since last century’s first African American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, but subtle, racial parallels persist. He, too, was unbeatable. Jack Johnson flaunted his athletic prowess in the boxing ring and he also flaunted White women, who came along with his world championship. Tiger, likewise, has anchored himself in a similar arena of American identity. Reluctantly, America was forced to accept the golf superstar on his terms. Who could compete with him? It was impossible to deny his gift on the links or his re-invigoration of the previously staid sport–and his marketing genius made it difficult to ignore him or negate him. Tiger Woods was a Masters champion, who easily deflected references to race and he was rewarded for his neutrality. He was permitted to be functionally White.
A young billionaire with international reach, Tiger was safe-until the transgression. The breached covenant that caused such uproar was not the marital one. After all, the prenuptial was in place to compensate generously for boundary violations and was perhaps, indicative of a marital infrastructure borne as much of finance as intimacy. The succession of blond, beautiful women, eager to promote their expertise in the high stakes arena of celebrity sexual gratification, was shocking and perhaps even punitive. These women wore America’s double standard and were prepared to derail a career, family or national image at low risk to them for their chance at retribution or maybe a reality show.
Yes, Tiger betrayed his family. But in America that is not uncommon. What Tiger did that approaches the unpardonable was his refusal to stay in his place. It was not that he participated in the sexual excess that can be such an element of professional sports (and hypocrisy that is so ingrained in American culture), but his lapse forced America to see how women are used as a sexual support system for the rich. These women fulfilled their role of beauty, business and exploitation with no pretense of White virtue. However, the unspoken requirement for Tiger’s ascent was the projected image of White perfection. He would be conditionally accepted among the elite, because of his incomparable golf game and his immeasurable wealth. But he messed up. He showed us a dimension of dysfunction in the American psyche that we deliberately avoid and fail to resolve. The betrayal that really hurt was for him to show us how far we are from what we say we are.
America allowed Tiger to be White, a privilege denied Jack Johnson. He broke covenant when he abandoned the condition of his acceptance. He ignored the rules of the other game, when he failed to be grateful enough, submissive enough or perfect enough. Now punishment is being meted out as endorsements and control of his career are being replaced with carefully timed scandal. If he had only been perfect– or at least as flawless as his golf swing.