By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Sadly, it seems the few conversations we have about race and sports anymore are limited to extreme reactions to language. They're not so much conversations as they are confrontations, usually angry ones and increasingly with severe consequences. Our parents never told us that words could hurt just as much as sticks and stones.
Already a broadcaster has been suspended, a magazine editor fired, and feelings deeply bruised from the inappropriate use of one of America's ugliest images: lynching. And we certainly haven't heard the last of the Kelly Tilghman-Tiger Woods-Golfweek Magazine controversy because Woods opens his 2008 season this week, which might be remembered more for what he says about all this than how he plays.
Sen. Barack Obama even weighed in from the presidential campaign trail in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning when he said Golfweek Magazine's use of a noose on its cover showed "a lack of sensitivity to some of the profound historical and racial issues. . . . We have to understand there's nothing funny about a noose. There's a profound history that people have been dealing with, and those memories are ones that can't be played with."
This could have and should been handled more professionally all the way around, starting with Tilghman, whose apology for saying younger players on the PGA Tour should "lynch [Tiger] in a back alley . . . " should have come immediately and repeatedly, not two days later. The Golf Channel, instead of waiting several days to publicly reprimand Tilghman, should have done so immediately, perhaps avoiding the need for a suspension. And Golfweek absolutely should have used the controversy as a teaching tool, examining black participation (or lack thereof) in the golf industry with sidebars on lynching and why so many people were offended by Tilghman's words. But Golfweek conducted no such examination, meaning the picture of a noose on the cover did little more than inflame, which is inexcusable.
As black folks everywhere telephoned, e-mailed, texted and tried to make sense of this latest language episode, former NBA star Charles Barkley made as much sense as anybody when he said: "I don't want to hear that the golf industry's biggest problem is something Kelly Tilghman said. If Golfweek really wanted to examine racism, as the editor said he did, they would look at golf and country clubs excluding Jews and black folks. . . . Look at their restrictive policies and explain why the only black folks you see at most clubs are working in the kitchen . . . just like it was 100 years ago."
As a matter of disclosure, Barkley and Tilghman are friends. So are Tilghman and I. Neither of us defends what she said; it's regrettable and hurtful. But there's context to everything, beginning with the fact that Tilghman has not at any other time we're aware of uttered anything even remotely similar. Nothing in her television work hints at anything mean-spirited or bigoted, which is also the reason Tiger Woods has said it's a non-issue to him.
This isn't Don Imus insulting the Rutgers women's basketball team. Imus is a serial offender when it comes to race and gender. Imus meant to insult; it's been his M.O. for years. Tilghman has zero incidents in her history. I'm not prepared, as someone who speaks into a live microphone regularly, to hold anyone to a standard of perfection. The two-week suspension for Tilghman is more than enough. What annoys me more than what she said is that producers weren't in her ear immediately, calling for an apology after the very next commercial break.
What's also much worse than Tilghman's split-second gaffe is Golfweek's decision regarding the noose. The magazine had more than a week to think about its cover choice, days and days to assess the potential reaction, and still blew it. I was happy to hear Jim Thorpe, an African American and 16-time winner on the PGA and Champions tours, say so. Thorpe also defended Tilghman because he knows her work and said, "It was a bad choice of words. But the guy from Golfweek [fired editor Dave Seanor]. . . . Let him get barbecued. That was a major mistake on his part. . . . [Putting the noose on the cover] was absolutely stupid. That was throwing fuel on the fire. Why would you do that? He knew better."
What tends to go unexamined also is the number of black producers working in positions of impact at networks such as the Golf Channel (or ESPN or the national networks for that matter) or black editors working at magazines and newspapers who sit in on meetings where covers are discussed and ultimately decided. Were these staffs more racially inclusive, certain thoughts and notions would be challenged before something becomes a finished product.
The images of lynchings are still too vivid in my mind's eye. My father fled Georgia in the early 1940s because he feared he wouldn't move quickly enough (if at all) to the back of a bus to make room for a white person. The punishment for such a crime quite often was lynching -- if not burning then lynching.
We don't study these atrocities anymore or the shame they produced. This new ignorance is a cultural issue as much as a racial one. If it can't be found on YouTube it's not going to be consumed. Sadly, it's why we need the upcoming Black History Month, so even black children and teenagers can learn about somebody black who didn't dribble, tackle or rap, and what happened to, and with, African Americans for 400 years.
Kelly Tilghman knows the sting of discrimination because not all the men in the golf world welcomed her with open arms last year when she became the first woman to be the lead announcer for PGA Tour events. Even though she grew up in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and graduated from Duke, I wonder what, if anything, she knew about the history of lynching in America before last week. Partly, I wonder because she said, "lynch him in a back alley." And anybody who knows anything about lynching also knows black men weren't strung up in alleys, or anywhere urban enough to have alleys.
While some of us believe the reaction to Tilghman's words were overly dramatic, the reality is that this is now a full-blown issue, large enough that many black critics are pounding Woods for not being angry -- as if his saying this should be a non-issue is an indictment of his blackness. That's not just wrong; it's downright dangerous.
These episodes tend to raise the volume but not always the level of discourse. Al Sharpton, in a stereotypical knee-jerk reaction, called for "him" to be disciplined, obviously not knowing the basic information about Miss Tilghman. There's a scene in Denzel Washington's new movie, "The Great Debaters" that illustrates very horrifically a black man having been burned and lynched, which should be required viewing during Black History Month. I'd like to sit with Tilghman and Sharpton and watch the movie, then discuss exactly what it means, without the threat of suspensions or the fear of learning something that might change our minds and our behavior.