The Sand Trap Of Inequality

That Tiger Woods: what a disappointment. Sure, the guy is one of the greatest athletes of our time. And unlike others who trade superhuman eye-hand coordination for big cash, he has never felt the need to pound his significant other, buy vast quantities of blow for himself and his hangers-on or drive a convertible over the speed limit after a smorgasbord of Jell-O shots. What Tiger seems determined to do is to devote himself to golf. Who does he think he is?

A polite and well-spoken young man who is a genius at getting a little ball in a little hole. No more, no less. Yet Woods has come under fire this year for being a bust at civil-rights advocacy. According to critics, he has been neither strong nor outspoken enough about gender discrimination at Augusta National, the all-male golf club where the Masters Tournament is held.

To understand why this is such a big deal, it's important to remember one thing about Tiger Woods: he's black. He was expected to speak out on the Augusta issue because he has won the Masters and because he may be the most gifted golfer the sport has ever known. But he was also asked about it because he is supposed to be an expert on prejudice.

This is what you might call the glorious kinship of the disenfranchised, and the suggestion is that it comes with Tiger's territory. He has risen to the top of a game that for many years was the symbol of the supremacy of the white country-club culture, and so when there are inequities, it's assumed he has some obligation to address them. This sounds perilously close to the notion that a black man has to pay an additional toll for position in the white world.

When the handful of black executives who belong to Augusta are asked over and over again about the admission of women, it becomes an interesting form of what might be called power racism, as well as hugely convenient for garden-variety white guys, who are somehow assumed to have no stake in the matter. Warren Buffett, who has become one of the country's richest men by playing the markets at least as well as Woods plays the links, is a member at Augusta and surely has more clout than most of the other members, or any professional golfer.

CBS broadcasts the Masters Tournament and could make an important public statement about discrimination by refusing to do so. Instead of waiting for Tiger to make a pronouncement, three former presidents who play golf regularly--Ford, Bush and Clinton--could have been making a persuasive bipartisan power play and calling together for the club to abandon its exclusionary policy. What a photo op that would be!

A founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, complained to The New York Times that when Tiger says he hopes the club will decide to admit women, he "sounds like a politician." Now, there's a conundrum. In the natural order of things, politicians would be just the kind of leaders to address this sort of inequity. Instead they've ceded the field of Important Public Pronouncements to movie stars and sports figures.

Some athletes have stepped up quite nicely, and some have simply been nice. Billie Jean King helped achieve great gains for women in sports; Chris Evert minded her manners and signed autographs politely. Both were criticized for not being more like the other. Tiger Woods does not have to be a clone of Arthur Ashe, except to the extent that all black men still look alike to the world, and all of them are obliged to take the stands their white counterparts do not. No one much mined Arnold Palmer's social conscience.

This is a dispute so absurd it scarcely seems worth arguing, the last gasp of exclusionary privilege that began its death rattle when Augusta admitted black men in 1990. In the foreseeable future the club will clearly find itself sulking reluctantly into the 21st century and admitting the executives and attorneys some of its members probably still call "gals." Hootie Johnson, the chairman of the club, can stop harrumphing about being forced into gender desegregation "at the point of a bayonet." And if guys want a place to hang together, they can do what we gals do and congregate on the benches when they take their kids to the playground.

This is one of those rights for which I must argue despite my distaste for the end itself, like supporting the right of women to hold combat positions. I think golf is silly, indeed a good walk spoiled. But it's necessary for me to espouse egalitarianism, not because I am a woman (although it has frequently turned out that if I am not for myself, there are few of my brothers conspicuously for me) but because, occupying this space, it is the work I signed on for. Tiger Woods signed on for the game of golf. It would be lovely if he used the bully pulpit of athletic celebrity to address inequities in a way that vanquished them. But he is not obliged to do so, not by his vocation, certainly not by his race.

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