When Tiger Woods won the PGA Championship in 2000, the mutterings began.
Like all black athletes with "crossover" appeal, whispers echoed on about "tradeoffs" and "giving back," and about it being time Tiger developed a "social conscience."
A handful of sports pundits, including USA Today’s Jon Saraceno and one Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist, began the drumbeat: It’s time Tiger use his face and his personality to hock progressive causes.
"Progressive" of course means liberal. And I’d guess that all the longing for Tiger’s political activism has since dried up because the evidence increasingly points to the fact that Tiger just might be — hold your breath — a Republican.
The left has been trying to push sports stars into politics for some time — particularly African-American athletes. But they haven’t had much luck. While Republicans continue to field world-class Capitol Hill softball teams with athletes like J.C. Watts, Jim Ryun, Steve Largent, and Jim Bunning — and have budding stars in the works with John Elway, Steve Young and Karl Malone — the Democrats have mostly struck out.
When party activists tried to recruit Michael Jordan to campaign against North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, Jordan declined, retorting with the glib line "Republicans buy shoes, too."
When avowed Republican Charles Barkley was told by his grandmother that the GOP is the "party of the rich," Barkley replied, "But grandma, I’m rich."
And when President Clinton called to congratulate Venus Williams after she’d won the 2000 U.S. Open, Williams didn’t fawn and blush — she complained to him about her taxes.
So why do athletes tend to lean right? My guess is because in sports, merit reigns supreme. There are no quotas or affirmative action policies to ensure that the NBA, the NFL or Major League Baseball "look like America."
Sport is uncompromisingly results-oriented. Outcomes are based on performance and efficacy is measured in cold, cold statistics. There are no championship rings for "most diverse offensive line" or "most multicultural starting rotation." Field an inferior team and you’ll lose. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter what feel-good politics caused you to put your particular lineup on the field.
Consequently, I’d guess that athletes have to chuckle to themselves when they see these sorts of policies employed in the real world. Ironic that when it comes to our second basemen and linebackers, we want nothing but the best, regardless of race, creed or color. But when choosing who builds our bridges or paves our highways, we factor in such un-bridge-building/un-highway paving criteria as whether the firm is a "member of a historically oppressed identity group," or "female-owned."
Sheer demographics likely also play a role. Athletes kill lots of hours in the weight room; they spend long days on the practice field and their bodies take a terrible beating. I’d imagine that they, like anyone else who works hard to get ahead in life, are genuinely perturbed when huge chunks of their salaries are then yanked back from them in taxes.
Which brings me back to Tiger. To this point (and to his credit), Tiger has spurned calls to political activism. When much ado was made about him being the first black man to win at Augusta, he demurred, insisting on Oprah Winfrey’s show that he’s not black, he’s "Cablinasian," an amalgamation of his various ethnicities which mocks the favored "one drop" rule which, though once the convention of extreme ignorance and racism, is now employed by today’s more rabid civil rights activists.
When the NAACP pressured him to boycott a South Carolina tour event because the state still flies the Confederate flag, Tiger again ducked controversy. He didn’t play the event, but he refused to be a ruse. He insisted he declined because the Hilton Head event didn’t fit into his schedule, not because he was making a statement.
Likewise, when an obviously tipsy Fuzzy Zoeller made some boneheaded comments about collard greens and fried chicken after Tiger had just won his first Masters, Tiger again would be no one’s pawn. He didn’t call for Zoeller’s head — as civil rights activists wanted him to do. But he didn’t give Zoeller a free ride, either — as the PGA’s good ol’ boys urged him to do.
Instead, he let Zoeller sit in the fire for a bit. Then he accepted Zoeller’s apology.
It seems that the sporting world’s political left is antsy for the next Muhammad Ali, a man who while politically active, was hardly the epitome of the sportsmanship and class we often hear is lacking among today’s marquee athletes.
Today, Ali is a kind and fragile old man, an "ambassador for peace" who stood on the right side of the Vietnam War. Lost in 2000’s "Athlete of the Century" kudos and last year’s Will Smith movie hype, however, is the fact that Ali was in his prime a brash and arrogant racist, a boor who disparaged black opponents whose skin was darker than his (he called Joe Frazier "an ugly, dumb gorilla"), and who brought taunting and mean-spirited mockery to the ranks of championship boxing.
Fortunately for us, Tiger seems to be following in the footsteps of subtler, more graceful, lead-by-example heroes — men like Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. Tiger may not identify himself as a black athlete but, like these men, he is nonetheless obliterating stereotypes and long-held racial boundaries with the simple one-two punch of stellar on-field performance and graceful off-field dignity.
Tiger may in fact be a Democrat. He may be a Republican. He may be neither. I think it’s rather refreshing that, as of now, we really don’t know. We know him only as a "golfer." And a very, very good one.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va., and publisher of The Agitator.com.