Wednesday 21 February 2018

Comment: Toothless Tiger Woods has never seemed so irrelevant

Tiger Woods is making good progress in comeback bid
Tiger Woods is making good progress in comeback bid

Tommy Conlon

Last week Tiger Woods openly accepted the possibility that he might never play another round of competitive golf. But it wasn't this admission that made the 41-year-old sound like yesterday's man.

Nor was it the fact that he was once No 1 on planet golf for a record 683 weeks and is now ranked 1,142; or that he hasn't played a tournament since his aborted comeback in February after a 16-month lay-off; or that he's had four back operations on a body that has been breaking apart for several years. He addressed these issues in surprisingly cheerful tones at a press conference for the Presidents Cup on Wednesday.

It was when he was asked a question about the escalating political tensions in American sport that he sounded like a bygone relic.

Five days earlier the White House incumbent had inflamed the controversy by referring to any NFL player who refused to stand for the national anthem as a "son of a bitch". In his speech in Alabama, President Turnip called on NFL owners to fire these players.

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers was the first major African-American sportsman to refuse to stand for the pre-game anthem, in August 2016. Inspired by the 'Black Lives Matter' movement that was mobilising nationwide in protest at police killings, Kaepernick said he could no longer do nothing. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag of a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting away with murder."

There had been sporadic demonstrations by other teams before and after him but they hadn't caught fire. Kaepernick was more or less left to dangle out there on his own. He has paid a high price. Last March he parted company with the 49ers. He has not been signed by any NFL franchise despite a widespread consensus that vastly inferior quarterbacks have since been recruited ahead of him.

Perhaps mindful of his isolated fate, most of his peers across all pro sports remained quiet. A potentially powerful protest campaign among some of America's most high-profile black figures never got off the ground. It had almost petered out until the Turnip threw a can of gasoline on the embers in Alabama.

LeBron James, the basketball superstar, reacted on Twitter by calling the President a "bum". And over a weekend of NFL games, the Kaepernick gesture finally caught fire. Dozens of players from the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars went down on one knee during the playing of the anthem. Virtually every player on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster remained in their locker room while the Star Spangled Banner was played outside. The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans did likewise.

Then, before the Monday night game, American football fans were treated to the incongruous sight of Jerry Jones also taking a knee, his arms linked in a line of players all down on one knee too, their heads bowed. They then all stood in unison for the actual playing of the song. Owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jones is the quintessential rich, aged and southern Republican party man. He had actually donated $1 million to the Trump election campaign.

Two days later, therefore, when Woods fetched up for his press conference in Jersey City, it was still dominating the news agenda. Everyone from fans online to players in locker rooms were having their say. And if an arch-conservative like Jerry Jones felt a public snub to the President was acceptable, surely Woods would finally get off the fence too, for once in his life?

Nah. "Hopefully things can be healed," he replied when asked for an opinion. "We can progress as a nation and come together, not just only the near future, but for perpetuity." He couldn't have sounded more out of touch and disconnected if he was Howard Hughes.

We all know that for 20 years he chased the corporate dollar to the exclusion of all else, not least expressing any viewpoint that might remotely compromise his vast payload. On the all-consuming issue of racism, even though he'd been a victim himself, he just didn't want to know. He belonged to a generation of sporting gods, like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and OJ Simpson, who turned their backs on the campaigning legacy of athlete-activists such as Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and of course Muhammad Ali.

But when someone like LeBron James takes a stand, it is a rebuke not only to Trump, to racist cops and the establishment in general, it is a rebuke also to the likes of Woods and their ivory tower indifference. James is a corporate behemoth too. He could also use that excuse: can't rock the boat in case some cash falls out of it.

Kaepernick said he could not continue "to look the other way". Tiger spent his storied career looking the other way. When he was great on the course, he was the biggest sportsman in the world. Now that the talent has deserted him, he is just a walking void. He can't play, and still he has nothing to say. Woods will never be obscure but, last week, he never seemed so irrelevant.

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