Monday, April 7, 2008

A Journalist Says Something Stupid

Hey, hey, it's that time of the month - where I rail on a journalist for making a ridiculous assertion. Kevin Mitchell is this month's winner. He is a writer for the Guardian Unlimited. His premise is simple: Tiger Woods didn't change the world like his dad said he would. Rather, Woods has just made a bunch of guys on the PGA Tour richer.

Let the idiocy begin!

And that is the problem. Woods long ago - possibly in the American summer of 1997 - ceased to be just a great golfer. He is golf. And golf is, like it or not, money. It is estimated Woods has trebled the growth of golf's economy. Half-decent pros who might have scraped a few grand a month pre-Tiger are now multimillionaires. Very good golfers are earning phenomenal amounts. Without Woods, golf would go into a sub-prime nosedive. Television executives, faced with the prospect of trying to sell the most boring collection of conservatives in the history of sport, would turn to each other like those guys in Mad Men, fiddle with their silk ties and retreat to the Hamptons.

Look at the PGA Tour money leaders for 2008 so far. Eighteen players have already earned a million dollars or more. Woods sits at the top with $3,615,000 (£1.8m). Behind him are Phil Mickelson ($2.16m) and Vijay Singh ($1.96m). It goes on through a familiar cast of names, all millioned-up and thankful to The Man: Choi, Ogilvy, Leonard, Cink, down to Trahan and Els... then on through to golfers who would be obscure battlers in any other sport but are wealthy athletes in golf. Thanks to one man.

Yes, we all know that it is because of Tiger that there were 99 millionaires last year on the PGA Tour. Frankly, Mitchell seems more concerned and bitter that he is not some bozo C-list player that can make half a mil by playing mediocre golf 30 times per year. It doesn't make me happy to know it either, but to slight Woods' accomplishments with his foundation in light of what he just happened to do for golf seems ridiculous.

An example of the slighting:

He has won respect for himself, but not for others. Kelly Tilghman, a broadcaster on the Golf Channel, notoriously and absentmindedly used the phrase, 'lynch him in a back alley', when asked how anyone was going to 'stop Tiger'. Woods, in a shamefully timid response, said it was 'not an issue', and they made up. But it was and is an issue for millions of black people that a white person can escape with a two-week suspension for using such an inflammatory, Klan-age phrase and that Woods, their champion, shies away from serious discussion of it. Just as he refused to speak out when Martha Burk campaigned for women to be allowed into the National club six years ago.

'I know there are people who want me to be a champion of all causes,' Woods told a compliant journalist earlier this year, 'and I just can't do that.' 'Why not?' was the undelivered reply. Because Woods is protecting his image - and his endorsements. He talks and thinks like a politician without being one. Woods does not have to say he's a conservative. His every gesture screams it.

Woods, the Messiah who never arrived, could walk away from his contracts, his corporate shackles, and effect meaningful change if he wanted to. But his priorities lie elsewhere. When Woods goes to the 1st tee in Augusta on Thursday, he will carry the expectations of the media and his sponsors, the goodwill of a worldwide fan base and the gratitude of his fellow professionals. He will not be thanked, though, by the grossly underpaid workers in Asia knocking out shoes for his sponsor Nike; he will not be thanked by struggling black American golfers making no real progress in 'his time'.

He will, though, be applauded by the unthinking, and they will talk about his legacy when he is gone. But it will be a legacy of little substance other than that which makes the golfing industry obscenely rich and irretrievably separated from reality.

Ok, I am not a Tiger apologist, nor do I adore him with everything I write. So, I have a little bit of street cred on the subject.

Is Tiger Woods supposed to be the man for all seasons? Is it his duty as someone who has millions of fans worldwide to effect change on a global scale? Even if he did try, would he be successful?

For instance, Mitchell says that Woods should be tackling child labor abuses in Asia that Nike is accused of time and time again. Certainly, child labor and general labor pay abuses in Asia are abhorrent. But, if Tiger threatened to walk away from Nike - who has incredible profit margins and is the only apparel company really excelling in the global economy - would Nike listen? Do they care that much? After all, golf is a niche sport.

How about the supposed plight on black golfers on the PGA Tour? After all, since there are no other black guys on Tour, it has to be on Woods that has not happened in his 11 seasons. There are immense social factors that work against African-American players getting on Tour. Again, it is a situation that I wish were not true. But, how could Mitchell hold Woods to that standard? Organizations like the First Tee, USGA, and PGA of America have been working on varying levels to encourage youth of all races to take up the game and get good at it. Efforts like those will take a generation or more to pay off, and they may never pay off. Will it be Woods' fault if they fail?

Why should Woods stop at trying to get black people to be good at golf? That seems like such a limiting goal. Hell, white people aren't playing golf at the same clip that they used to, so what makes Mitchell think that Woods could just get black people to line up and take their place? Or people of any race? That's stupid.

Mitchell, read the annual report of the Tiger Woods Foundation. I dare you. Or perhaps you could find the Form 990 that the Foundation is required to submit to the IRS every year stating that the foundation has approximately $29 million in investments available at the organization's disposal. They gave away almost $2 million in grant money. His board members get NO compensation - very rare for a nonprofit. (This is all public record, but I'm not linking to it. Email me if you want the source.)

The guy is not an oaf when it comes to altruism. Certainly, with a stated focus on helping children in urban environments in the US, Woods is not a guy that is looking to tackle world hunger, human rights, or anything like that anytime soon. Still, to call his work insignificant stinks of laziness. There is a reason that he is winning awards.

There is also a reason why he stayed above the fray on issues like Martha Burk and Kelly Tilghman's lynching comment. Do I wish that he had said something about both subjects different than what he did? Yeah. Does that mean he is any less significant in the good that he does because he chose to avoid the subject? No.

Tiger Woods is not Ali. Get over it. But, he is someone who is working with his corporate relationships well and utilizing his massive wealth to make altruistic investments. And, Mr. Mitchell, if you have not noticed, there is a trend to that in philanthropy.

I guess my larger point is not to be on Tiger's side - although this certainly will read that way. Rather, my point is that bitterness creates a film over objectivity.T

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