When Tiger Woods burst onto the professional golfing scene nearly two decades ago, he drew keen attention for more than just his towering drives and precision putts. The young phenom sparked widespread excitement for what he represented: a break in tradition. In stark contrast with its lily-white history of exclusion, golf’s most visible, successful, and bankable star was now a person of color — a guy who signified his dizzying lineage with the invented word “Cablinasian,” combining “Caucasian,” “black,” “American Indian,” and “Asian” to reflect an ethnic pie chart laden with slices of Thai, Chinese, African, Dutch, and Native American. The racial optics were off the charts.
Nike sought to capitalize on those optics after signing the freshly-minted pro to a lucrative endorsement deal in the summer of 1996. Their first ad campaign, “Hello World,” used Tiger’s blackness to call out golf’s legacy of racial discrimination, and their second ad campaign, “I am Tiger Woods,” rolled out a multicultural brigade of club-wielding youth to indicate he was inspiring a demographic upheaval within the sport. His father Earl brazenly inflated this sense of revolutionary influence, telling Sports Illustrated that “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity… He is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations.”
Images from that article ended up on the wall of my college dorm room, although not by my own hand. Some friends pinned them above my bed with the joking implication that golf’s hot new sensation had become my idol. My friends’ whimsical teasing related to the fact that I’d recently begun to participate in mixed race organizing on campus, and the meetings tended to evoke Tiger’s name, either as a touchstone example or as a dream booking for a student conference. I had a good laugh at discovering the Cablinasian affixed to my wall, but he seemed an apt icon of the moment, so I let him stay there.
Years passed, and Woods’ stature blasted off into the stratosphere. He relentlessly racked up tour wins and sponsorships, accumulating gaudy wealth in the process. He earned so much that he probably could have fulfilled his father’s grandiose prophecy and bolstered a few ailing countries with a phone call to his accountant. By the fall of 2009, he’d reached a billion dollars in earnings, the first athlete ever to do so. And then, just two months and one bizarre car crash later, his world flipped upside down. Facing innumerable allegations of marital infidelity and losing valuable endorsements left and right, he took an indefinite leave from golf.
If you’d drunk Earl Woods’ Kool-Aid, these developments probably came as a huge bummer. Assorted prominent figures have emerged relatively unscathed from adultery scandals, but this one felt so wildly absurd, so totally pathological, it obliterated any illusions that Tiger was the guy to change the course of humanity.
Not that he really had that potential in the first place. His dad’s comments demonstrated head-scratching hubris and a tenuous grasp on reality, while Tiger himself never displayed the necessary charisma or warmth to lead a social movement or sway anyone to a new way of thinking. Plus, he didn’t seem particularly interested in leveraging his position for benevolent purposes. And now that position has collapsed in on itself.
Tiger’s effort to build it back up marches on this weekend, as he strides the links at Augusta National, chasing the 15th major that has eluded him since running his Escalade into a fire hydrant five and a half years ago. I’m idly keeping an eye on his progress, as I have for much of his career — although not out of some sort of fan loyalty. I’ve actually been rooting against him since long before the accident (I’m incapable of pulling for any team or individual who dominates the field so rampantly) and the transgressions that came to light afterward gave me added motivation not to back him. The reason I continue to follow what happens to Tiger is those optics.
Part of me simply feels obliged to monitor how the media interprets multiracial people; having scrutinized and discussed such issues ad nauseam during college, I’m compelled to stick with the habit. And part of me wants to see delivery on Tiger’s symbolic promise, some sign of transcendence that stirs the spirit, prompts mixed kids to pick up golf clubs, and alters the fate of nations. And part of me is looking for further confirmation that it’s all a sham, a Nike pipe dream propping up yet another sleazy rich guy.
I’d rather not indulge this set of impulses, as I’m far enough out of college to realize there’s only so much that can be accomplished by parsing the semiotics of sports celebrities like Tiger Woods. Unfortunately, such level-headed logic still does me no good. Whether I like it or not, that dude’s going to stay stuck to my wall.
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