Tuesday, March 18, 2008

WWGFS Tiger and Barack

March 18, 2008, 11:15 a.m.

Analyzing Race, Ethnicity, Sports and Politics

"How does he do it?"

That's how the Orlando Sentinel's sports reporter, David Whitley, led his story about Tiger Woods' 64th PGA tournament win. David Whitley, "Champ Authors Another Golf Masterpiece," Orlando Sentinel, March 17, 2008.

It got me to wondering as well. Just how does he do it?

What accounts for the thousands who come out to watch him play, and the millions more who watch on television? Why do corporations line up to pay him millions just to use, or say nice things about, their products?

What accounts for a swooning media? What would cause seasoned and cynical professional sports reporters like Whitley to write, in assessing Woods' Bay Hill victory, "Another Sunday, another Tiger Woods masterpiece. . . . He passed Arnold Palmer in career wins and tied Ben Hogan on Sunday. Next up is Jack Nicklaus, then Sam Snead, then Zeus or whoever else is the club champ on Mt. Olympus."

"Masterpiece"? "Zeus"?

It's hard to understand, isn't it? Why, in a field of very talented professional golfers, would so much attention, so much adulation, be focused on this young man?

And then I was reminded, not of the initialed bracelets that asked the question "WWJD" -- "What would Jesus do?" My suspicion is that Jesus might well take the same approach to golf that a law school colleague of mine takes to all of what he persists in disdainfully pronouncing "sch-portz."

No, what I asked myself was, "WWGDS" -- "What would Geraldine Ferraro say?"

Former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, you may recall, has been thinking deeply about the comparable attention focused on Barack Obama. Why would this young presidential candidate, like Tiger Woods, attract crowds of thousands, and voters by the millions, on the basis of his performance?

And after long and thoughtful contemplation this seasoned politico, who has been around the track herself more than once, and has contributed so much to her candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton, finally figured it out and shared her conclusion:

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."
Katharine Q. Seelye and Julie Bosmanb, "Ferraro's Obama Remarks Become Talk of Campaign," The New York Times, March 12, 2008.

Could this be the explanation for Tiger Woods as well?

Moreover, to the extent there may be more sports fans cheering Woods than political junkies cheering Obama, the Ferraro theory may very well explain it by the additional ethnic strains Woods represents. After all, Obama is merely the son of a white woman and Kenyan man. Woods is as Thai as he is African-American, with Native American and European ancestry as well. (See, e.g., Janita Poe, "Tiger Woods Spotlights Multiracial Identity; Golf Star Sparks pride in Heritage," Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1997.)

By golly, I'll bet that's it, I thought.

But then I read on in Whitley's piece:

"Why is this guy seemingly immune to all the laws of golf? . . . 'It's why you work all those tireless hours,' he [Woods] said. 'It's why you get up at 0-Dong-30 and log your miles, bust your tail in the gym.'. . .

Those moments look easy because he's done all the hard stuff. . . . Woods has more talent than all of them, but that doesn't fully explain why he's so much better. It really comes down to a dedication that never ends. . . .

After that [earlier, less than perfect] round he and caddie Steve Williams went back to the range at Isleworth. Woods pounded balls until a no-way miss started kicking in. . . .

Everybody will remember that last birdie putt [of 24 feet on the 18th green], but Woods was relishing the 167-yard [five iron] shot that set it up.

It was the product of the extra range time he put in. Only this time, his caddie was joined by millions of other eyes to see the make-or-break moment. . . .

He made it look easy. . . . 'Well, I have to keep working and keep progressing,'Woods said. 'And keep working on my game.'

It's no mistake he said 'working' twice. With Tiger the wins never stop because the work never ends."
When President Lyndon Johnson was referred to as "Lucky Lyndon" he would sometimes respond, "Yes, they call me 'Lucky Lyndon,' but I've always found the harder I work the luckier I get." Samuel Goldwyn, Donald Trump, and Gary Player, among others, have also commented on the relationship between work and "luck."

Could it be that Geraldine Ferraro's theory requires a little more refinement?

Could it be that Senator Barack Obama's qualities like ability, hard work, a quality education, achievement, and the sense of fairness and social justice that underly his vision of the future, of our coming together, delivered with a real public speaking ability -- like Tiger Woods' golfing ability coupled with his hard work, dedication and focus -- are a better explanation of Obama's popularity in political rallies, primaries and caucuses across our land than his skin color?

Could it be that, notwithstanding the progress we have made in race relations over the past 50 years, the success of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama has less to do with being black and more to do with having to overcome being black, and to do so by working harder, and achieving more -- spectacularly more -- than had they been white?

Now that's a concept that Ferraro, of all people, should understand. (As male and female feminists alike occasionally note, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did -- only backwards and in high heels.")

If the answer to "WWGFS?" involves that insight she may, indeed, be on to something.

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