Tiger is no Jackie Robinson, and that's OK
In a letter on his official website www.twfound.org, golf superstar Tiger Woods says that a role model is someone who embraces the responsibility of influencing others positively. Presumably, Woods counts himself as one of those who influences others positively. His critics, and they are becoming more numerous by the day, say that this is nothing but self-serving fluff.
Woods has been hammered in recent days for not condemning men's-only golf clubs, for not shelling out more of his fabulous wealth to charities, for not trotting around America's inner-cities and cheerleading more young blacks to take to the green, and for not saying and doing more to help other talented black golfers get sponsors, promotional opportunities, and gain entrance to the professional tours.
At first glance, Woods is ripe for their jeers. He has infused raw excitement and energy into golf, and elevated it from the clubby, elite preserve of conservative, white males to global popularity. Still, the sport's racial barriers remain formidable.
There is still only one black golfer on the PGA Tour, and that's Woods.
There are no black golfers on the LPGA Tour, only one on the Buy.Com Tour, which is a step beneath the PGA Tour, and only two blacks on the Hooter Tour, which is a kind of PGA apprentice tour. In a sport where it's virtually impossible for even the most skilled golfer to advance up the Tour ladder without major sponsorship, black pros still must scratch, claw, beg, and plead for financial backing.
In most cases, they have been unsuccessful.
But Woods, just by being the best and most visible golfer on the planet, has inspired and motivated scores of minority kids to believe they can be the next Tiger Woods.
In the past nine years, the National Golf Foundation estimates that the number of blacks playing golf has doubled. A colossal part of that increase is due solely to Woods. Tiger has not entirely blown off his duty to be a role model, albeit reluctantly. He has given motivational speeches to inner-city kids, bankrolled the Tiger Woods Foundation, which has sponsored junior golf clinics in dozens of cities, and funded educational programs in more than 30 states.
However, this is not enough to prevent him from being branded a racial traitor for failing to use his supposed clout to be the Jackie Robinson of Golf and blast down the racial barriers in the sport. (In a few ill-advised cases, Woods went so far as to deny that he is black. And he is of mixed heritage.)
Still, Woods can't and won't be Robinson, and that's OK, because that's a crushing load of racial baggage to pile on him or any black superstar.
Actor Robert Redford embraces environmental causes not because he lives on a big ranch, but because he believes in preserving national natural resources.
U2's Bono works to retire international debt, not because he's Irish (and they owe a lot of money), but because he believes it's key to a successful global economy that won't starve innocent people to death.
Black athletes and entertainers, past and present, such as Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Jim Brown, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Dave Winfield, and now apparently Michael Jackson embraced equality causes not because they're black, but because they believe in civil rights to their core-as do many white activists.
If prominent African Americans got involved in these causes to pass a racial litmus test, it would be a cynical and hollow gesture.
Fame and celebrity status doesn't necessarily make anybody an expert on any complex sociopolitical issues.
Are black celebrities held to a higher standard of activism?
If they speak out under duress on issues they barely understand, or don't truly believe in, they do more harm than good. They would raise false expectations, dash hopes, and deepen frustrations. African-Americans would feel manipulated and used.
Yes, there are many struggling organizations, self-help programs, businesses, community centers, and political causes within the black communities that Woods could devote more of his considerable wealth to helping. But if he did do it to appease critics, get more favorable publicity, or to ingratiate himself with the black community when the heat is off and the cameras are gone, he too would have been manipulated.
Whatever Woods does to aid blacks he must do it because he genuinely wants to do it, not because some boo birds think it's the racially correct thing to do.
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