A common theme ran through the reportage about Tiger Woods’ Memorial Day DUI – when, according to the police report, Woods was found in Jupiter, Florida, asleep at the steering wheel of his still-idling-but-parked car with two flat tires. The story, everyone felt, was “sad.”
For Jason Sobel at ESPN, “the main takeaway here is sadness. Just pure sadness.” “There’s no other way to spin it,” wrote Jaime Daiz at Golf Digest, “The Tiger Woods Story, sad for a while now, has grown sadder.” Cori Rust, a former lingerie model linked to Tiger during his days of rampant extra-marital affairs, believes “he’s a good person, and it’s kind of sad.” Even Jack Nicklaus, the Greatest Golfer of All and the player Woods was compared to most often during his prime, felt compelled to offer thoughts of sympathy. “I feel bad for Tiger,” he said, “He’s been great for the game of golf. He needs our help. I wish him well.”
But what is “sad” about the Tiger Woods story, and for whom is it “sad”? If we take maudlin tone of sports writers at face value, the sadness comes from the fall from grace of the greatest golfer of his era, which isn’t necessarily the same as feeling sad for Tiger Woods.
Sure, some writers, such as Ian O’Connor, would chide Woods for his “reckless” behavior: being on the road at 3 am, passed out at the wheel certainly does seem, well, criminal for the danger it poses to others and to the driver himself. But eventually even O’Connor finds his way to rooting for the redemption of Tiger Woods:
So yeah, I’d like to see Woods find his way home sooner rather than later. So what if he has spent most of his career as a taker instead of a giver. I just want to fully appreciate the artist at work one last time, in one last tournament, on one last Sunday.
More than sadness for Woods, the sympathy here is for us. We’re sad because we keep looking for the comeback that makes fans of us all again – even if only briefly. That comeback doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. And so, Tiger’s DUI gets immediately interpreted as part of a larger narrative of personal decline.
That decline, though, is about more than just a great golfer because it wasn’t his charisma that drew us to Tiger Woods and his story. In fact, Tiger’s relationship with his fans has often been standoffish and distant – at times even arrogant and dismissive. The story isn’t sad because we care about the welfare, physical or psychological or both, of Tiger Woods. It’s sad because Woods’s story fits into a larger narrative of cultural and national identity.
In that larger narrative, a “Cablinasian” [Woods’ own moniker for his racial identity: Caucasian + Black + Indian (Native American) + Asian] prodigy could dominate the sporting world by sheer talent and force of will. When that larger narrative works, America works. Tiger’s success tells us that the melting pot is healthy, unifying, great. To be deprived of Woods’s redemption is to be deprived of an American myth.
Strangely, though, we don’t find the struggles of all biracial athletes to be sympathetic. Colin Kaepernick came within inches of leading the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl victory, but then he sat down and eventually kneeled in protest of police violence against African Americans. Now, Kaepernick, having been released by the 49ers, can’t find a job as his protest has made him a toxic presence. New York Giants co-owner, John Mara, remarked recently that he was reluctant to hire Kaepernick, in spite of those rallying for his cause, because he had received many letters from “emotional” fans claiming that they wouldn’t attend Giants games if Kaepernick were on the roster.
But of course, Mara is the same owner who felt “comfortable” re-signing kicker Josh Brown even though Brown physically and emotionally abused his then-wife on dozens and dozens of occasions, and Mara was familiar with his record. Mara’s recent comments struck Eagles’ wide receiver Torrey Brown as hypocritical and he took to Twitter to remind us that Kaepernick has never committed a crime and was simply voicing his First Amendment right, while other criminals are getting second chances. (Smith tweeted: “hit a woman cool…sexual assault cool…kneel OH NO.”) One athlete – charged with a crime – becomes the object of sympathy and another –who has done nothing wrong – earns continued vilification.
Unlike Woods who disappoints our delusional self-image and makes us sad, Kaepernick acquaints us with a narrative we don’t want to hear: that something is broken in America. The message of Kaepernick’s protest, the one that gets lost in the shuffle of patriotic pomposity, is that America has always been and remains fundamentally and dangerously racist. Unlike Woods, Kaepernick disables the melting-pot myth. Kaepernick’s protest is a challenge, and a brave one that’s cost him his livelihood.
To be pulled over with your head on the steering wheel of your car is to humble yourself. We see the mugshot. We feel embarrassed for Tiger and sad for ourselves that our heroes turn out to be human. Sad, though we may be, there’s a coherent narrative trajectory in the Woods story—the man who wins it all, loses it all, and gets to work recapturing it. Maybe he will yet, we hope, still hooked on the plot line.
Kaepernick’s protest is not an act of humility. It’s an affront to the Woods narrative. It forces us to accept – or consciously ignore – that someone might have a different understanding of the soothing narratives we like to tell ourselves about opportunity and racial animus in America.
Lost or buried amid the details of Woods’ interaction with the police officers who pulled him over is a fitting detail. When pressed to pass a field sobriety test, one that asked him to recite the Romberg Alphabet (“to state the alphabet forwards, not backwards, and to do so without singing or using voice inflections/rhyming,” according to an Orlando attorney), Woods misheard the directions, thinking instead that the cops had asked him to say the national anthem backwards –the same national anthem that played while Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest.
Woods’s misunderstanding reflects larger confusion about our national narrative. We know the narrative by heart, or know what it should say and sound like, but looking at it backwards throws the whole thing off, so that we aren’t sure if the narrative even makes sense anymore. And so there we are: pulled over, intoxicated on the side of the road, trying to remember the words that come before “brave.”