After five days of dithering, the Golf Channel has finally suspended commentator Kelly Tilghman for two weeks for her on-air comment January 4, suggesting young players looking to break into the game should "lynch Tiger Woods in a back alley." At first Golf Channel officials blew off the controversy, saying that they had gotten very few complaints about Tilghman’s appalling attempt to get a laugh.
Tilghman, celebrated as the first full-time female play-by-play commentator in the history of the PGA Tour, was slow to offer an apology. It took her a couple of days to say, finally, "On Friday during our golf broadcast, Nick Faldo and I were discussing Tiger’s dominance in the golf world and I used some poorly chosen words. I have known Tiger for 12 years and I have apologized directly to him. I also apologize to our viewers who may have been offended by my comments."
Through a spokesman, Tiger Woods called Tilghman’s gaffe "a non-issue." But it is an issue.
To state the obvious, there’s nothing funny about lynching. It’s even less funny to chuckle about lynching the most prominent athlete of color in a sport with an unparalleled history of racism. For Tilghman to be oblivious to this history should be grounds for dismissal. As a point of comparison, Major League Baseball was of course desegregated by Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. It took until 1975 for a black man, Lee Elder, to play that most esteemed of all golf tournaments, the Masters, held at Augusta, Georgia. Augusta itself finally started admitting black members in 1991.
Tilghman’s comments carry even more resonance, no matter her intent.
There is something particularly cement-headed in talking of lynching in a climate where the noose has achieved a renaissance as alarming as it is tragic. That ultimate symbol of racist violence has found new life because of the case of the Jena Six–six African-American high school students who faced decades behind bars, last year, for their part in a school fight that followed the hanging of nooses in the courtyard of their high school. Their cases, and the subsequent demonstrations of support, have received so much news coverage, even the Golf Channel must have heard something about it. Since then, nooses have surfaced–at Columbia University and the University of Maryland; high schools in North and South Carolina; the Hempstead Police Department on Long Island; the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut; and elsewhere. They are reminders to those who want to build a new movement for civil rights to know their place.
No one is going to confuse Tiger Woods with Dr. Martin Luther King, despite his late father Earl’s dreams that Woods would someday approach this status. Woods is proudly apolitical, content to let his bank account and green jackets do the talking. But often athletes acquire a symbolic importance that extends far beyond any political ideas they may express. Tiger’s very success in the world of golf speaks to the dreams of millions of people: the dream that individual greatness can break down even the country club door; the dream that there is a place on the golf course to do more than carry clubs. I have a friend who is African-American who believes fiercely that the reason Tiger wears that red shirt and those black pants on Sunday is to reflect the palette of African nationalism. There is no more reason to believe this than to think Michael Jordan shaved his head in solidarity with the Dalai Lama, but sometimes the political power of representation trumps reality.
I’m not much of a Tiger Woods fan. He claims to be apolitical but won’t hesitate to sign off on commercials that trumpet his multi-cultural heritage. Call it civil rights for sale by the pound. Call it twenty-first-century branding. But this is one day when we should all unabashedly say, "I am Tiger Woods."
Now, after trying to sweep Tilghman’s gaffe under the carpet, the Golf Channel has finally been forced to act. "While we believe that Kelly’s choice of words was inadvertent and that she did not intend them in an offensive manner, the words were hurtful and grossly inappropriate," the GC said in its statement. "Consequently, we have decided to suspend Kelly for two weeks, effective immediately."
This is a start. For Tilghman and her employer, with the microphone comes some measure of responsibility. We saw Don Imus chased off the air (if only for a few months) for his racially repellent remarks. I can only hope that during Tilghman’s two-week vacation, someone gives her some serious history lessons on the unsightly underbelly of the sport she represents, not to mention a reality check about what’s happening on the other side of the country club walls.
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[Dave Zirin is the author of the new book "Welcome to the Terrordome:" with an intro by Chuck D (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by emailing [email protected] Contact him at [email protected]]