The Importance of Being Tiger Woods
Issue #35, November 1997
Sometimes I dream/That he is me...
Like Mike, I want to be like Mike
— Gatorade commercial featuring Michael Jordan
"I'm just who I am," Woods told Oprah Winfrey, "whoever you see in front of you."
— Gary Kamiya, "Cablinasian Like Me," Salon
It is no longer a question of like, now it is a question of am. The tenuous difference, as DeLillo writes, is one of the "fine-points that ha[s] entertained several centuries of medieval idlers." But in our present corporate culture, it can mean the difference between ending the fiscal year in the red or in the black. Nike, I would argue, is without parallel in transmitting this message to the world. Its latest vehicle, Tiger Woods, has successfully effaced the difference for them through the "I am Tiger Woods" commercials: the metynomical relationship between commodities and the icons who sell them has been supplanted by the metaphorical one. No longer embarrassed to proclaim themselves as separate from or potentially approaching the talents of Tiger Woods, consumers can now, with Nike's permission, become the golden child himself, the multiracial millionaire, who, according to his father Earl, will make the world "a better place to live in by virtue of his existence." Tiger Woods is also our multicultural future, the transcendent intersection of charisma, virtuosity and racial and political indefinition. Nike has seized upon Woods' unique history to hawk its wares through the next millennium. Having exhausted the street-tough Georgetown Hoyas and Charles Barkley, and having relied upon the similarly but not entirely unclassifiable Michael Jordan, the shoe company has seized upon Tiger as the metaphysical equivalent to its ubiquitous swoosh: a racially and politically ambiguous icon which, through our absorption of it, promises to transport us into an exalted plane of being. Instead of trying to be like Mike, we are Tiger Woods, the multiracial millionaire.
Nike might not care if the above statements are true and verifiable — they sell shoes. But what of the other questions this ad campaign raises, such those about racial classification, equity and political leverage? In a recent HBO "Real Sports" segment, several private country clubs were criticized for having an unwritten law regarding the exclusion of minorities, without regards to class. One doctor with impeccable credentials, who had a buddy recommend him, couldn't make the cut, but couldn't sue under current legislation, because private clubs can select whoever they want as members as long as there are no written laws discriminating against anyone. To top it off, these clubs do not have to pay taxes under certain laws, saving millions of dollars a year. The race card is one each side still plays, to empower and disempower: what does a multiracial wunderkind, who excels in a homogenic/hegemonic sport like golf, promise minorities when he decides to not call himself black or Thai or Native American? These are the issues he and we have to face. The erasure of racial classification seems to present as many problems as it attests to solve.
When Michael Jordan steamrolled over the NBA in the nineties, he had become the medium and the message of advertising: it was through His Airness that Nike came to power, but it was also Nike that made Jordan so special. Here, inarguably, was a piece of greatness the average slob could buy for $80-$150 at the nearest sportshop. Even though his early commercials with Spike Lee answered "No" to the queries, "Is it the shoes?" or "Is it the shorts?," Nike's marketing strategy indirectly suggested that it was indeed the products associated with Jordan that made him who he was. Gatorade was similarly declarative, asking us to be like Mike.
In the Gimme Decade of the 80s, where the mantra "greed is good" had its own materiality fortified by legislative and political exercises such as the various S&L screw-jobs, disastrous investments in minor markets (the Contras, Noriega et al.), junk bonds, cocaine-for-weapons trades, and Star Wars (the defense program), Nike put its foot squarely down on the neck of the racial and cultural pulse of the global village by co-opting everything in sight. The first targets were the Georgetown Hoyas, whose shoes, according to Todd Boyd's essay "The Day the Niggaz Took Over," "went quite well with the roughhouse persona developed by the Hoyas ... [which] foregrounded Georgetown's penchant for embracing the nigga as their conscious role model on their run for the championship."
After bankrolling the transmission of what Boyd terms the "prevailing sign of Blackness," the nigga, Nike then settled on the surreal display of skill that is Michael Jordan. What Jordan could do was so amazing, so inarguably awe-inspiring, he was the logical candidate for sponsorship: good-looking, affable, possessed with unclassifiable athleticism, what some advertisers might refer to as a sure-fire "crossover." In order to expand their customer base (to pull it out of, according to Boyd, the "authentically 'Black'" market of the Hoyas) into the mainstream, Nike made Jordan the Dorothy of basketball: click your basketball shoes together three times, and you too can defy gravity. Even though during the infamous Spike Lee "It's gotta be the shoes" commercials the viewer was repeatedly being told that the jump from Average Joe to Jordan was impossible, there was no doubt that Nike was materially linking his abilities to its products. Even Boyd, who is less concerned with Nike's commodification of Blackness than he is with African American culture's appropriation of commodities, assents: "Here athletic ability is reduced to the ability to purchase the trendy Air Jordans, while Jordan's image becomes indistinguishable from the commodity that he markets."
The times they are a-changing, though. Tiger Woods, if you listen to Phil Knight and Earl Woods, is a the true market-driven messiah of the next millennium, a multiracial, young, and good-looking athlete of boundless talent who can appeal to every demographic available. Witness:
— The old white boy network of golf is shaking in its boots: Tiger grabbed the Masters, reconfiguring not only the records themselves, but the standards by which they were judged. Masters officials are already looking for a way to alter the golf course to make it a more level playing field, to give lesser golfers a chance to compete, just as they did when Jack Nicklaus wrecked the course when he donned the Green Jacket back in the sixties.
— Days after Tiger's victory, golf courses around America were seeing massive jumps in attendance. Most of the newbies were kids, of course, and a many of them were minorities.
— Woods graced the covers of several national magazines, including his infamous stint with G Q. His commercials were all over the airwaves. He signed new deals with Titleist for amazing sums of money.
— Earl Woods, Tiger's father, claims, without irony, that "he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations, Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."
Insert maniacal shriek here
In Gary Smith's mind-numbing article in Sports Illustrated, "The Chosen One," the collusion of messianism and marketing reaches its apotheosis: Tiger Woods has been sent by God to rid humanity of its ills. Forget that he's just a manchild with skills no one has seen before; forget that he makes jokes about black dicks when he's around his friends; forget that he's a wonderful son who tries to honor his father no matter how hard the work might be; forget that he gets 40 million dollars from Nike to wear the ubiquitous swoosh like a tattoo on his body whenever he gets dressed. Even if Earl Woods has been sniffing glue, there is still the question as to what exactly Tiger's labor is. Whereas in earlier Nike ads, one had bad boys like the Hoyas or Charles Barkley hawking rebellion by telling you what they were not ("role model[s]") and what they do ("wreak havoc on the basketball court"), or heaven-sent icons who told you what was not the key to their gifts ("the shoes," "the shorts"), Tiger's ads went the decided route of the immanent transcendent. They do not tell you a thing, except who to be.
To be serious, Tiger Woods marketability and skill are so immense that Nike's campaign took the only logical, ontological slogan left over after the Jordan reign: "I am Tiger Woods." It makes some sort of bizarre sense to see several kids of every nationality chant "I am Tiger Woods" like the drones of The Manchurian Candidate; if they chant it long enough, and buy the shoes, the clothes, the gymbags, and the rest of the gear, maybe they can convince themselves that they could be someday be as amazing as him. That is, they could unmask the long-held belief that people like Woods, Jordan, Barry Sanders, Michael Johnson et. al. aren't the recipients of god-given gifts (the stock line of sports self-understanding), but just people who practiced really hard with the right equipment. Then the Gear becomes the God. If you can wear the right shoe, you can gain an advantage of some sort over your competitor, you can transcend your limits. In "On Money," Karl Marx asserts that the product of alienated labor is "the visible god-head ... the general confusion and inversion of things," a site of transcendence. Money turns "real imperfections and painful imaginings ... into real faculties and powers," and their vehicles are these commodities money can buy. Consumption transforms alienation into transcendence. When you meet the Chosen One through the medium of the swoosh, you are not buying a piece of divinity, activating the tenuous ratio of the simile "Be Like Mike," which still holds heaven at arms length, you are, instead, becoming the commodity, becoming Tiger Woods. You are Tiger Woods: you are going to become God.
So now we know everyone is Tiger Woods. But who or what exactly is that? Tiger has a ready-made label which works for him; he calls it "cablinasian," a truncated version of the aggregate Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian. An inclusive term which strives to destabilize the essentialist restrictions of popular terms i.e. white, black, African-American, Latino/a, "cablinasian" denotes the diversity of America's changing racial landscape, with an optimistic nod to a future where color of one's skin is, as the immortal Bob Marley song "War" attests, as important "as the color of [one's] eyes." Except that both people of color and whites have specific grievances with terms like "cablinasian," or multiracialism itself, mostly because the color of one's skin is still ultimately relevant. For different and similar reasons (privilege, leverage, agency), proponents of blackness or whiteness depend upon essential configurations of race to empower themselves in the face of shrinking relevance and power. Both sides are facing a millennium that will disrupt every definition they have ever known, especially when it comes to racial politics. People like Tiger Woods, who refuse to pigeonhole themselves within the pathetic "either/or" binarism handed down from Western civilization, are visible markers of this changing landscape of American identity. Nike knows something that most of us don't know, just as they did when they grabbed Jordan. The millennium will carry with it demands for equally new models of transcendence and consumption: Tiger Woods, the cablinasian God, is primed by Nike to achieve multiracial sainthood.
"Fuzzy" Logic, or The Race Card
"Am I excited?" said a 47-year-old named Jap, nursing a Bud tallboy and marveling at the stupidity of such a question. "If golf was all black and one white guy was doing this, wouldn't you be? Hell, yes, I'm excited."
— Rick Reilly, "All is Changed," Sports Illustrated
We're just getting ready to watch the Super Bowl
We gotta black quarterback so step back
— Public Enemy, "She Watch Channel Zero"
If we doubt the prescience of a multinational like Nike, let's make a comparison. Take another retail company, specializing in cheaper gear, like K-Mart, whose spokesman for a particular line of golf clothing is Fuzzy Zoeller. According to Zoeller, the cablinasian God is, in the words of writer Jack White, not "a golfing prodigy but a fried-chicken-and-collard-greens-eating Sambo," a "little boy." Although Fuzzy, who made his unsavory comments on camera, claims that his jibe was not "intended to be racially derogatory" and was, in fact, "misconstrued" (in what way he did not say) by Woods and the general public, he spent most of the post-comment period wishing it was over rather than explaining himself. "It's over," he offered after a meeting with Woods, "I thought it was over three weeks ago." Fuzzy obviously has a fuzzier version of history than does Woods, who asserted "I have a problem with anyone saying it in that tone." Right after Zoeller inserted his foot into his mouth, he was dumped by K-Mart and was defended only by his cohorts in the old-boy's club. Fellow golfer, Fred Couples rationalized it this way: "Off-the-wall comments are made all the time. There was nothing racist about it. We don't have any problems like that out here on tour." No one has seen or heard from Zoeller since, however, and, like it nor not, hardly anyone is going to remember Fuzzy for being a jokester anymore. Nike knows something already that K-Mart doesn't, all right.
If we still doubt that racism still plays an ambiguous part in today's sport culture, let's take a quick look at the public exploits of our overpaid, racialized, recreational icons:
— 1997 is the 50 year anniversary of Jackie Robinson's step over baseball's color line. To commemorate this historical movement, Major League Baseball has retired Robinson's number forever. Bill Clinton threw a party inviting several major sports icons and their peripheral contacts to the White House, forgetting to include Woods. Once Woods scorched the Master's, President Clinton rethought and tried to recoup to no avail. Woods turned him down, stating rather simply that he didn't find the change of heart particularly meaningful.
— Recalling the immortal scene from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, where several black youths are jammed into a ring for an anarchical boxing match, only to scramble after prize cash thrown on an electrified mat, Mike Tyson, the receptacle for a populace's primal need for relentless rage and violence (and forcible entry) bit half of Evander Holyfield's ear off for millions for dollars. Offering the weak excuse, "I have a family to feed," Tyson was left not to scramble for gold in a booby-trapped boxing ring, but rather from a nation's hypocritical disgust and his membership in boxing's elite. HBO has made movies out of both his and Don King's life even as their cable rival, Showtime, rakes in tons of money from their fights. Tyson, a street punk still lost in his own confusion, will probably rake in three times the amount of money of the Holyfield match for his first fight once his yearlong suspension from boxing is up. Like the rabid white spectators of Ellison's free-for-all screaming, "Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!," America will feed upon Tyson's self-destruction once again, like an addict in search of the best fix, until his complete disintegration is effected. Even with Ice Cube rapping, "Don't say nothin' just listen/Got me a plan to break Tyson outta prison," even with all of the celebrity visits to his cells (Maya Angelou? He raped someone, remember?), even with all the so-called clarity bestowed upon him by his devotion to Islam, and even with his centrality in the sport of boxing even though his prowess is becoming liminal as we speak, Tyson will fulfill the unarticulated rage, violence and unmitigated greed of his multicultural spectators. He's still the ultimate "black buck" stereotype.
— At the U.S Open, which began on Althea Gibson's birthday and which smartly named its swank new stadium after Arthur Ashe, a black tennis player who spent his post-sports life helping out the less fortunate before he was destroyed by AIDS, Venus Williams, who may be the sport's "next Tiger Woods," according to Sports Illustrated, got into a chest-bumping match with the jealous and lesser-talented Irina Spirlea, who in desperation figured that a head game was the only game she brought with her to the tournament. Asked to explain her actions after the match, which she lost, Spirlea accused Venus of caving in to her own mythology: "She thinks she's the fucking Venus Williams." What is obvious is that everyone else except Williams thinks that: other players complain that her brash off-court demeanor (which included, gasp!, not offering a hello back to reformed crackhead Jennifer Capriati), her self-imposed separation from the rest of the spoiled-brat coterie of tennis, and her cockiness, get in the way of a finer appreciation of her talents. What they could be thinking (and her father probably would agree with this, having attested he has heard as much) is that Venus is what used to be termed an uppity nigger who has the gall to think she's better than everyone else when she really is a talent so feared and obvious that her race seems to be a vocalized challenge to white hegemony. Her father, Richard Williams, as weakly as Spirlea, has caved in to this mythology himself: after accusing Spirlea of being a racist, and contending he has heard Venus called a "nigger" before by tournament players, he then permanently embroiled himself in the prejudice-game by calling Spirlea "a big, ugly, tall, white turkey." In a press conference after the match, race was the only issue at hand. One black reporter walked out because of the race-baiting media frenzy, and Venus herself had to set the record straight: "I think with this moment in the first year in the Arthur Ashe stadium, it all represents everyone being together, everyone having a chance to play ... I think this is definitely ruining the mood." Good point. When a petulant star like Martina Hingis still gets to be top dog because she can say the same things, Venus Williams is getting slammed for being asocial, bent on winning and ... not smiling? "Why don't you guys tell me what they want me to do?" she told the press, after being questioned again on her demeanor. "They should come up to me and say, 'Venus, I want you to smile so I can feel better.' When I want to smile, I'll smile. If I don't want to, I'm not going to. I think it's a little bit peevish. Smiling, what does that have to do with anything?"
— Now, more than ever, there is highly vocal dissatisfaction over the NFL's continuing disregard for the hiring of black head football coaches. Last year was a banner year for potential head coaches; almost half the league had fired their coaches in disgust over records, incompetence, etc. but no new black faces showed up at the top position. Instead, pathetic throwbacks like Dick Vermeil and Mike Ditka got jobs, while talented strategists like the Packers's Sherman Lewis were yet again rebuffed by American franchises. Lewis was vociferous in his disappointment at not getting hired; his words have new resonance after Tony Dungy (a brilliant black coach hired last year), and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had an amazing year so far. Why the annual snubbing, especially at a time where the last privileged white position, quarterback, has seen an influx of incredible new talents like Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart or Tennesee's Steve "Air" McNair? Something's rotten in the NFL.
We don't really need to go further but we can. The fuzzy logic of Fuzzy Zoeller makes sense to every American, whether s/he wants it to or not. It is the whiny complaint of white privilege being dismantled, but it is equally a confusion of signification. If Tiger Woods has to explain racial terminology to an adult (even an ignorant one) there are problems of communication on both sides of the ball. Previous essentialist concretizations like "white" and "black" have given way to fuzzier inferences like "cablinasian" and "multiracial," these third terms that screw with one's comfy binarisms. Racial axiomatisation is a thing of the past, like the ridiculous "1/32" rule, which could legally determine you were black if you had one black grandparent among 32 others. Most racial classifications of blackness have their roots in slavery, anyway: they were used to determine whether or not black children could be sold if their parents were slaves or free people. But for some reason, usually having to with the safeguarding of privilege and/or material possessions, people find it hard to function without the power of non-fuzzy, that is, classical logics. They cannot live in a world where definitions are not absent, but fuzzy, fluctuating. They need the One True Logic or the One True Classification so they can keep that which gave them all they ever had: their power.
Scott is doing time on an M.A. at San Francisco State University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.