Saturday, October 11, 2008

If Obama Wins, Is It Thanks To Tiger Woods?

African American athletes have been successful as long as white Americans have been. But, as my colleague Richard Kimball points out, for decades they were seen as a threat to white America. When Jack Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1908, Jack London called for a "great white hope" to restore the superior race to its rightful, dominant position. Johnson was vilified, treated as an animal, and harassed by a racist public. Even Jesse Owens, after his triumph in Berlin in 1936, returned to the back of the bus and marginalization once home in America. And Americans, rather than seeing his victories as an indication that it was time to reconsider race policy, instead viewed them as an affirmation that segregation worked. It was not until after World War II that black athletes began to gain a measure of equality in the United States. Jackie Robinson's successes paved the way for other competitors and, when America needed athletes to defeat the Russians during the Cold War, black athletes like Wilma Rudolph, draped in the flag, gained acceptance by helping save the day in Rome (again, thanks to Dr. Kimball for this detail).

Even in these instances, however, black athletes remained primarily heroes for black America and they were still marginalized in sports where they were under the authority of white managers and trainers.

Tiger Woods may be the first black (or, like Obama, part black) athlete to succeed at an elite sport and to be accepted as something of a pop culture icon. Americans of all colors follow his career, cheer for him, and play Tiger Woods Golf on their Play Stations and X-Boxes. Without him in a tournament, TV audiences plummet (this year's tournaments have fewer than half the viewers they did last year with Tiger competing). According to The Economist, Tiger Woods is the best paid athlete in the world (his 127.9 million annual income is more than twice that of the second best paid athlete), and he dominates a sport that was reserved for white, upper-class men until only recently. In other words, Tiger entered the upper echelons of sport and in a very short time he became the first African American to win many of golf's major (and minor) tournaments. He garnered a following that cut across all races and social classes and became, in terms of marketing, the most powerful athlete in the world.

Enter Barack Obama. Like Tiger Woods, he is of mixed race. Like Tiger he has been able to reach across racial lines, social classes and quickly enter and become a huge player within the corridors of power. He is an international icon. Would Americans have been willing to accept him and elect him without Tiger Woods, a "Cablinasian," having already primed the pump? Granted, the Tiger factor is only one among many, but in an election where Obama won the primary by the smallest of margins, every percentage point counts. Is it possible that Tiger's popularity made a black politician fractionally more acceptable--and acceptable not just in a small congressional race, but in politics of the largest scale?

Perhaps to assure victory next month and gain an even larger following among suburbanites, like Tiger, Obama should come out with his own video game. Whether or not he does, and whether or not he wins, to this blogger, Barack Obama is the political Tiger Woods.

(P.S.: I do not want to minimize the importance of Arthur Ashe, winner of three grand slam tennis titles, who, although he was never as iconic [or marketable] as Woods, clearly helped pave the way for Tiger's successful career. If there are other athletes I left out, please comment.)


SM Sprenger said...

What about Jabbar, Chamberlain, Magic, Jordan, Ali, Joe Frazier, even OJ before his fall, etc. etc.? These were giants of their generation, and most of white America was rooting for them without too much concern for color. As for golf: it's a thoroughly middle-class sport but with pseudo-aristocratic pretentions. How else to explain its enormous popularity? Truly socially elite sports generally go ignored by the "masses" because they are not televised. The greatest golfers of the 20th century, Palmer and Nicklaus, came from fairly ordinary, if not modest (in the case of Palmer, whose father was a golf course caretaker), means. I think somehow Obama would have made it without Tiger. They both emerge from the same historical matrix that was prepared by other "greats" before them.

Corry Cropper said...

I agree, they prepared the terrain, but unlike Woods, these athletes were cheered for without being necessarily trusted by white America. Ali is probably the most blatant example: when he was young and strong he was largely vilified in the white community as the scary black man, a Muslim and law breaker. It wasn't until he was frail and sick that he was accepted and lionized by mainstream America. Jordan, too, was largely seen as a black man who was a top-notch entertainer, but who couldn't be trusted (gambling debts, etc.). These other athletes were entertainers, but I suggest not really respected outside of their sport by white America (A few years ago I heard a radio host talk about athletes--he was speaking generally about Kobe Bryant--as being animals that should be kept in cages and only let out to play). Woods, on the other hand, has shown himself to be a consummate professional (if a bit bland) on and off the course. He out earns every athlete in the world. He has had a nearly perfect run and earned a kind of corporate and white middle-class respect no other black athlete has attained.

SM Sprenger said...

Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexual assault, so may not be a good example. My point is simply that in the chronology from Jesse Owen to Tiger there is a generational leap that makes Tiger's widespread acceptance seem more extraordinary than it is. Think of it this way: all things being equal, if you placed Tiger back in time a generation or two the result would be radically different. In the political realm, which is perhaps more relevant to Obama's acceptance, there are also Colin Powell and Condoleeza that broke new ground in white consciousness--Powell especially for his role in the first Gulf war. I think Tiger is more a symbol of structural changes in American consciousness rather than the "cause". But we may be getting ahead of ourselves with the anti-Obama mobs in middle America last week. The GOP is doing their best to dredge up racist fear.

SM Sprenger said...

To follow up: I just read an article in Slate that deals with why/how Obama has found acceptance:

Corry Cropper said...

One thing Scott and I agreed about re this topic is that Tiger's demeanor may have helped in part reverse the "angry black man" stereotype. Think this stereotype is in the past? Consider the attitudes toward fighting in the NBA versus fighting in the NHL. Obama remained calm through the entire campaign.