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Focus on Tiger Woods – The Issue is Racism

December 11, 2010 (Last in a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • Eldrick “Tiger” Woods might have lost his top spot in golf rankings in 2010, but he kept his place at the top of search engines around the world, coming in, for instance, at seven out of 10 for the year on searches carried out by Yahoo Canada.[1] Of course what drove this was not his golf game. For the first time since 1995, Woods did not win a tournament, let alone a major. The year 2010 saw his record 623-week reign as the world’s number one ranked golfer come to an end. No, what drove interest in Mr. Woods was the publicity generated by the very public break-up with his wife, Elin Nordegren. Now it is not actually news that a celebrity athlete gets married, has a few affairs, and then has marital difficulties. However most do not receive the massive outpouring of media scrutiny experienced by Mr. Woods. But Woods, you see, is black. His wife, and his girlfriends, were white. That combination still touches a raw nerve throughout much of the Global North, particularly in the United States. The extraordinary obsession with the personal life of one golfer is a reflection of deeply held racist ideas, ideas which permeate modern society.

At the peak of the story, in the Autumn of 2009, the quantity of coverage of this one golfer’s personal life was by any standard, phenomenal. Take New York City. It is not surprising that in the wake of 9/11, that city’s New York Post would devote considerable coverage to the attack on the twin towers. In fact, 9/11 appeared on its front page for 19 consecutive days, and until 2009, that was a record for any one story in the paper’s history. But in 2009, coverage of Mr. Woods beat that record. For 20 consecutive days, the tabloid screamed out, on its front-page, headlines concerning his private life.[2] That is worth emphasizing – nineteen front pages for the attacks on the World Trade Centre which triggered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 20 front pages for the marital difficulties of a golfer. This treatment of Woods was not from some marginal publication. The New York Post is one of the oldest continuously published media outlets in the United States, having been founded in the early 1800s by Alexander Hamilton.[3] In 2009 it was the sixth most widely circulated newspaper in all of the United States.[4]

It’s not that it was a “slow news” autumn. In that span (November 29 to December 18, 2009) there were a few other choices for an editor to feature on her/his front page. A quick glance at The Globe and Mail for that period offers a few possibilities: on November 30, the crushing debt problems of once booming Dubai;[5] on December 2, President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan;[6] or December 17, the president’s dilemma at the Climate Change talks in Cophenhagen.[7] Quite possibly the financial crisis, the war in Afghanistan and Global Warming could be considered more newsworthy than Mr. Woods’ personal life.

When the Woods’ Affair first broke, US Magazine lent its weight to the discussion, publishing a list of “12 Unforgettable Sports Scandals.”[8] The list includes one white man (Pete Rose for gambling in Baseball) and two white women (Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan – Harding having organized an assault on her fellow skater Kerrigan). All remaining nine were men of colour, eight of them African American. For seven of these nine men of colour, the “unforgettable scandal” involved their relations with women. For the top three, it involved their relations with white women.

Among the detritus of sports-coverage on the Internet, one oddity is a poll conducted by The Q Scores Company, designed to reveal the most liked and the most disliked athletes. The focus on Woods’ personal life saw his standing in this survey plummet, to the point that he quickly shot to the bottom as one of the six “most disliked” athletes in the U.S. Who were the other five? LeBron James, Michael Vick, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, and Kobe Bryant. What do they have in common? They are all African American males. [9]

But surely it is clear why Michael Vick, for instance, is so hated. After all, he was a grown man who organized illegal dog-fights, and surely that deserves opprobrium. Fine, but what about the grown men all throughout professional sports who organize legal man-fights? Thousands have seen the video of professional hockey player Todd Bertuzzi hitting Steve Moore from behind, ending Moore’s hockey career.[10] No one was put behind bars for that. The latest fad to sweep the sports pages is the gladiatorial “sport” called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a barely disguised street brawl. No one is sent to jail for that. Is it that we value dogs more than people? Or is something else behind the selection of who is hated and who is not? Think of the white faces not on the list of the most hated. Former cycling champion Floyd Landis, stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for illegal doping[11] is not there, nor is disgraced multiple Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, himself also facing charges of illegal drug use, nor any number of white male athletes whose actions, or alleged actions, might well have qualified them for consideration.

The “most disliked” ratings story of basketball player LeBron James is quite revealing in this regard. In January 2010, James’ “positive score … was the highest we had ever seen it” said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of The Q Scores Company. But when he decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, and sign with the Miami Heat, he became an extraordinarily hated man – not just in Cleveland (where fans were understandably disappointed about losing one of the best athletes on the planet), but inexplicably across the entire United States. The switch of teams made him “the sixth most disliked sports personality” in the United States.[12] But just as Woods is not the only athlete to have marital difficulties, James is not the only athlete to abandon one team for another in search of more money and a championship. Roy Halladay’s decision to leave baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays for Philadelphia comes to mind. But Halladay didn’t, as a result, join Woods and James on the list of hated athletes. Instead he has been singled out for respect and praise on a fan-based web-site called “Thanks, Roy.”[13] Halladay, as you might have guessed is white. And don’t think the love for the now departed Roy is because Toronto is polite, while the United States is rude. Vince Carter was a sports idol in Toronto when he played for the Toronto Raptors, and nothing but an object for hatred since deciding to leave. [14] Vince Carter is not white.

There is only one explanation for the cluster of African Americans at the bottom of the “most disliked category” in 2010. It reflects attitudes towards African American males as a group. The obsession with Woods’ personal life has to be put in this context.

There are other issues in the Woods’ story that could be highlighted. Just before his fall from grace, Woods was in the news, not for his marital difficulties, but as “Sports’ First Billion-Dollar Man” – the first athlete in history whose lifetime earnings would top $1 billion.[15] Given this, there are some very progressive individuals who argue – because these are the troubles of a rich man, they just don’t matter.[16] Others see his comeuppance as an exposé of a sexist lifestyle. Martha Burk, for instance, quite rightly organized a boycott of the 2003 Masters event, because its venue, Augusta National, is a male-only preserve. Commenting on Mr. Woods’ choice of the Masters as the place for his return to golf after a self-imposed absence, she said: “I think this is a safe haven for him … They’re all chauvinists themselves. It’s a perfect fit.”[17].

But class and gender are not the main issues at stake here. Golf is a particularly “white” sport. Eldrick Woods – a black man – is arguably the greatest golfer ever to play the game. It is right to critique Augusta National and its showpiece annual event the Masters, the most prestigious golf tournament among the annual events sanctioned by the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA). But what is most clearly revealed when one opens that door, is a stark picture of systemic racism.

The PGA “customarily excluded blacks from becoming members since its inception in 1916” and in 1943 made that exclusion official by inserting a clause – “widely known as the ‘caucasians-only clause’” into its constitution in 1943. That membership restriction was only removed in 1961.[18] As for the Masters, until the 1975 participation of Lee Elder, no black man had ever been allowed to play in the tournament. Until 1982, to get on the course at all as a black man, you had to be a caddy. In fact, until 1982 – when for the first time PGA tour golfers were allowed to bring their regular caddies – every caddy on the course was black. This was no accident. Clifford Roberts, founder of the tournament, is quoted as saying: “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”[19] And even when, through the 1970s and 1980s, some golfers and some caddies were allowed onto the course, membership in the club itself remained white-only. Only late in 1990, in anticipation of new 1991 PGA guidelines “requiring private clubs that want to host tournaments to demonstrate that their membership policies are not discriminatory,” did Augusta National finally remove its “white-only” colour bar.[20]

This is worth emphasizing. We are describing a venue where until late in the 20th century, to golf you had to be white, and personal service on the golf course had to be performed by black men. That venue’s principal tournament was called “The Masters,” and its locale was in the former Confederate state of Georgia, a state which only abandoned the barbaric practice of slavery after suffering military defeat, and which became one of the centres for the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and all manner of racist reaction in the post Civil War years. (This, by the way, somehow failed to make it to the US Magazine list of “Unforgettable Sports Scandals.”)

The attitudes shaped by this history of racism are by no means of only historical interest. Return to the coverage of Mr. Woods’ personal life. Toronto’s mass-circulation tabloid, the Toronto Sun, like many other media outlets, has used a considerable amount of ink to cover Woods, on subjects other than his golf game. Those familiar with Toronto would know that any interest displayed by that paper in Mr. Woods’ relations with women will quite likely have little to do with women’s rights. The Sun is, after all, notorious for its long-standing practice of objectifying women through its “Sunshine Girl” feature. But that paper’s editorial decision on February 20, 2010, to craft a front page around Mr. Woods’ public apology for his indiscretions, spoke volumes. The front page headline, that day, on its Saturday edition, was comprised of two enormous capitalized words – “NO BALLS,” two words which filled most of the page, accompanied by a photograph of a contrite looking Mr. Woods, his eyes lowered to the ground. This front page, far from being a source of controversy, was more likely to be seen as a “funny.” That, for instance, was the response of Ontario sportswriter Paul Svoboda, who “loved the headline.” [21] Mr. Svoboda notwithstanding, the headline is objectionable on many levels, not the least being the adolescent-level standard of its “humour.” But more importantly, the headline taps a nerve just below the surface in North America – a mixture of racism, violence and sexuality, about which serious journalists should be aware.

For their files we can compile a short dossier. The sport of golf, as documented, above, has only recently emerged from Jim Crow era segregation. That era was one where racism often took the form of violence, violence mixed up with sexuality and black-white relations. This took extreme forms after the defeat of the racist Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War

The separation of blacks and whites was essential to Southern whites who were determined to retain supremacy after the Civil War; consequently the “mixture’ of people of European ancestry and people of African ancestry became a much more serious taboo. Because it was the men among the former slave population who gained suffrage rights and a measure of political power – and who therefore had the potential to destroy the racial caste system – whites focused on the taboo of sex between white women and black men with new urgency.[22]

There was, in other words an “equation of political rights and black manhood.” Throughout the U.S. south, “extreme white anxiety over sexual liaisons between white women and black men was linked to fears of black men’s political and economic independence.” It meant that for the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, “the greatest violence was reserved for black men.”[23]

Some of this violence is well-known. “Lynching” – the extra-judicial killing, usually by hanging, carried out by racist white mobs – was a violent method by which white supremacy was enforced in post Civil War United States. Between 1882 and 1968, one source documents 3,446 black deaths from lynching – 539 in Mississippi, 352 in Texas, 335 in Louisiana, 299 in Alabama, 257 in Florida, 226 in Arkansas, 204 in Tennessee, 156 in South Carolina, 142 in Kentucky, and 492 in Georgia, home of the Masters.[24]

There were less publicized, but equally gruesome forms of violent assertion of white supremacy. For black men accused of sleeping with white women, castration was often the weapon of choice. The issue of black-white liaisons was often really only the surface excuse for this barbaric violence. The horrifying story of Henry Lowther brings this out in stark relief. Klansmen were after him for political reasons. “They said I had taken too great a stand against them in the republican party,” he said. The dispute escalated until, “[a]s Lowther remembered the scene, almost two hundred Klansmen arrived in the middle of the night, and twenty of them carried him away to a swamp. ‘The moon was shining bright, and I could see them,’ Lowther recalled; all the men were Democrats. There the Klansmen castrated him.”[25] Klansmen would resort to castration and other forms of “sexual mutilation for any act that struck them as demonstrating political or economic power on the part of black men, whether or not they tacked on an accusation of sexual misconduct.”[26] Had they known this history, perhaps the Toronto Sun editors would have reconsidered their choice of front-page headline for Feb. 20, 2010.

The shadow of this racist violence was visible late into the 20th century. It was reflected in laws which existed in many states prohibiting marriage between blacks and whites (so-called “miscegenation”) “Laws prohibiting miscegenation in the United States date back as early as 1661 and were common in many states until 1967.”[27] Laws are themselves reflections of attitudes. Even when the Supreme Court in 1967 ruled definitively that it was unconstitutional to prohibit intimate relations between blacks and whites, attitudes reflecting that prejudice persisted, often with tragic results. In New York City, in the summer of 1989, “a young black man named Yusuf Hawkins was shot and killed by a group of young white men, who thought Hawkins was going to visit a white girlfriend. … Only one white man was convicted for the murder … the others were convicted of lesser charges or acquitted.”[28]

This history needs to be understood, if we are to arrive at an explanation for the otherwise bizarre focus on one man’s personal life. There are celebrity figures in the spotlight because of violence or alleged violence in their personal lives. There have been no suggestions anywhere that Mr. Woods has been violent with any of his partners. There are other rich men who have had marital troubles. For most of them, the story remains a private matter – or at best, something which involves 15-minutes of infamy, and then a return to the back pages. Think David Letterman. But with Mr. Eldrick Woods, the media frenzy has lasted more than a year. The obsession with one man’s personal life can only be explained in the context of the grim history of racism briefly sketched out above. Mr. Woods’ spectacular success in a white man’s game and his pattern of marrying and/or dating white women, touched a deep nerve in North American society. The backlash against him is an exposé of the still deep racism which systemically permeates that society.

© 2011 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] “2010 Year In Review: Top Searches.” Yahoo! Canada News. Accessed 11 December, 2010.
[2] Kyle Koster. “New York Post puts Tiger Woods on cover for 20th straight day.” Chicago Sun-Times. 18 December 2009.
[3] Nicholas Tan. “New York: The History behind the New York Post.” (Accessed 12 December 2010)
[4] “2009 Top Media Outlets.” BurrellesLuce. .
[5] Patrick Martin. “Soaring debt brings Dubai back to Earth.” The Globe and Mail. 30 November 2009: A1.
[6] Paul Koring. “Bold troop surge, early exit: Obama makes Afghan war his own.” The Globe and Mail. 2 December 2009: A1.
[7] Konrad Yakabuski. “Obama’s climate challenge starts here.” The Globe and Mail. 17 December, 2009: A1.
[8] “Unforgettable Sports Scandals.” US Magazine. 11 September 2009.
[9] Darren Rovel. “LeBron’s Q Score Takes Huge Hit.” CNBC. 14 September 2010.
[10] “Todd Bertuzzi Sucker Punches Steve Moore.”
[11] “Landis says clenbuterol use widespread in cycling.” Merced Sun-Star. 29 November 2010.
[12] Darren Rovel. “LeBron’s Q Score Takes Huge Hit.” CNBC. 14 September 2010.
[13] “Thanks Roy.”
[14] See Adam Proteau. “How our love for Vince Carter turned to hate.” 20 April 2007
[15] Kurt Badenhausen. “Sports’ First Billion-Dollar Man.” 29 September 2009.
[16] Representative of the latter is Liam Macuaid. “Tiger Woods – a Marxist analysis.” 13 December 2009.
[17] Cited in Neil McLeman. “Tiger Woods a sexist pig.” Mirror. 2 April 2010.
[18] Marvin P. Dawkins. “Race Relations and the Sport of Golf: The African American Golf Legacy.” The Western Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 28, No. 1. 2004: 328.
[19] Cited in Rick Reilly. “Strokes of Genius.” Sports Illustrated. 21 April 1997.
[20] Jaime Diaz. “Augusta National Admits First Black Member.” The New York Times. 11 September 1990.
[21] Paul Svoboda. “Tiger should get into acting.” Paul Svoboda. 22 February 2010.
[22] Martha Hodes. “The Sexualization of Reconstruction Politics: White Women and Black Men in the South after the Civil War.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1993, vol. 3, no. 3: 403.
[23] Hodes: 404 and 407.
[24] Charles Chesnutt. “Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968.” The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive. Accessed 14 December 2010.
[25] Hodes: 407.
[26] Hodes: 408.
[27] Bárbara C. Cruz and Michael J. Berson. “The American Melting Pot? Miscegenation Laws in the United States.” OAH Mazaine of History Vol. 16, No. 4. (Summer, 2001): 80.
[28] Hodes: 417.

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  1. Unfortunately, the issue of racism in modern society is not determined by genetics. If one is perceived to be black, then one is treated as such. The key here is not the pedigree of this or that individual (including Tiger Woods), but rather the way in which that individual is perceived. The United States and Canada are both societies structured around systemic racism, something which is reflected in differential standards and attitudes directed towards individuals. That is to say — if you are perceived to be "white" you are treated quite differently than if you are perceived to be "black," regardless of DNA.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    A small clarification. While Woods is perceived and often portrayed as being black, he is in fact of mixed ancestry. He's referred to himself as "cablinasian", and is technically half Asian (one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Thai), one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American, and one-eighth Dutch.

    For tabloid readers this fact is surely irrelevant, but it should be mentioned nonetheless.

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