Considering Tiger Woods

June 1, 2007
More than a golfer: Panel pondered what Woods represents

More than a golfer: Panel pondered what Woods represents. David Cannon

Described as possibly "the first-ever academic conference on Tiger Woods," a spring gathering of faculty members, athletes, and sports analysts convened at Duke's John Hope Franklin Center to discuss "Tiger Woods ©: American Empire, Global Golf, and the Making of a Megacelebrity." The purpose of the conference was not to discuss Woods' ability to hit a golf ball, but his impact as a global icon.

The conference trod some familiar ground, with several presenters referencing Woods' multiracial identity. Co-host Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology who is currently working on a book about golf and American society, compared Woods to Democratic senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama and argued that those identified as black "bear the burden of talking about race," while whiteness takes on a certain invisibility. "Tiger loves golf. Barack loves politics. Instead they find themselves having to account for their racial selves, to talk about race." Contrast that with white tour pro Phil Mickelson, who, Starn said, "stands for a white suburban masculinity. That's an identity, too, but he's not asked to intervene in racial problems."

Starn's comments sparked a heated debate between academic panelists and two sportswriters about the appropriateness of interviewers asking Woods about issues of race. The reporters argued that these questions are fair game—"I think he's responsible for his own message," said New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts, pointing out that Nike's "I am Tiger Woods" marketing campaign played off his multiracial background.

In her own presentation, Roberts described a side of Woods less obvious in a visible sense, calling him an "accidental feminist" for his support of LPGA tour pro Annika Sorenstam when she played men's events and his statement that women should be allowed as members of Augusta National. He has served as a role model for a generation of young golfers, male and female alike, she said.

In other areas, Woods' impact has been harder to gauge, particularly within the African-American community. Edward Wanambwa, senior editor of African American Golfer's Digest, spoke of a sense of pride in the black community in Woods' accomplishments: "There's this notion that he's dominated the last bastion of white supremacy."

But Wanambwa added that issues of access such as the steep costs associated with playing competitive junior—and professional—golf and the relative dearth of par-3 courses in urban neighborhoods keep many young African Americans from connecting with Woods as strongly as they do with, say, young black basketball stars. Woods is currently the only African American on the PGA tour. There are no African Americans on the LPGA tour.