Tiger Woods and His Brand of Activism

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tiger Woods may not want to be defended on this issue; he certainly didn't ask to be defended. But he's going to be, in this space anyway, because Jim Brown's recent comments to HBO that Tiger's social contributions are inadequate are way off base, even inaccurate. Just because Brown perhaps isn't aware of the depth and range of Tiger's contributions, or that they differ from his own social agenda doesn't mean Tiger is lacking a social conscience -- because he isn't.

Don't get me wrong, I've admired Brown's activism my entire adult life. One of the unforgettable experiences of my life came during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, when Brown, through his determination, concern and sheer force of personality, persuaded gang members from the rival Crips and Bloods to call a truce to the violence and talk out their differences at Brown's Hollywood home.

But the battles must be fought on different grounds; surely Jim Brown knows this. Tiger has committed millions of dollars, some of the money raised and some of it donated out of his own pocket, to enriching the lives of kids who couldn't possibly find the help elsewhere.

Overwhelmingly, we're talking about children from poor and working-class homes, kids crammed into inadequate housing, sometimes kids whose choices come down to joining a gang or going to the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Totally misguided, Brown said to Bryant Gumbel recently that Tiger is "A monster competitor . . . he is a killer. He'll run you over, he'll kick your [butt], but as an individual for social change, or any of that kind of [stuff] . . . Terrible. Terrible. Because he can get away with teaching kids to play golf and that's his contribution."

First, that's dead wrong.

It's inaccurate. The Tiger Woods Foundation doesn't teach golf. Maybe Brown presumed it does because the Learning Center is attached to the course where Woods grew up playing as a kid.

But it's not a golf academy. Brown should check out the list of courses kids can take there, such as engineering, robotics and marine biology.

A kid with a totally different orientation can get into animation and graphic art. There's an editing suite, a music studio, a computer lab for children who otherwise don't have access. It is technology based, also career and college based. The scope and effectiveness of this learning center ought to be praised, not wrongly dismissed as "teaching kids to play golf." And the learning center is just one part of Tiger's efforts.

When Earl Woods, Tiger's father, died a few years ago folks who wanted to do something were discouraged from, say, sending flowers and encouraged to make contributions to the Earl Woods Scholars program, so they did -- to the tune of $1 million. Tiger matched that with his own contribution of $1 million. The program has produced 25 scholars, 10 of them from the D.C. area, where Tiger is looking to expand his program. The foundation funds those students for up to four years. All 25 have mentors and internships guaranteed. They attend Georgetown, Florida A&M, Spelman, Penn State, UDC, Marymount, the University of Arizona, the University of Idaho.

Jim Brown might want to know they're not on golf scholarship.

The learning center in California, which opened in 2006, has had between 20,000 and 25,000 kids come through the doors. There are partnerships with schools that have come to depend greatly on the supplemental help the learning center provides. The one Tiger is trying to build here in D.C. can't arrive quickly enough.

Tiger Woods is too sophisticated a man to get into a public back-and-forth with the great Jim Brown. And beyond saying, "I think we've made our impact," Tiger doesn't attempt to specifically defend himself against the criticisms leveled by Brown and others. But I will.

Everybody's method and manner of being socially active is different.

Brown grew up in a world in which bigotry was omnipresent for black people.

If Brown wakes up angry every day even now, 50-some years after racial bias kept the Heisman Trophy from him, it would be perfectly understandable.

And it's fine, where I'm concerned, for Brown and the generation of men and women who felt the unrelenting heat of oppression to look at those who are blessed with opportunity now and say, "What are you doing to move the culture along?"

But don't then demean the efforts and the results of a man who is answering the call already, in his mid-30s as Tiger Woods is. Brown should also remember, Tiger plays golf but he didn't grow up some kid who didn't understand the need for a conscience. As Tiger related to Charles Barkley and me for Barkley's book, "Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man?" in 2004, he became aware of his own racial identity on the very first day of school, kindergarten, when a bunch of white sixth-graders tied him to a tree, spray-painted the n-word on him and threw rocks at him when he was the only little brown child in Cypress, Calif. And his dad encountered a whole lot worse.

Just as important, Brown has to realize that the expression of social consciousness isn't a matter of people singing the same song. Jim Brown took on the Crips and Bloods, and a lot of other demons. Tiger Woods attacks the problem as he sees fit, through education, which has always been at the root of Brown's preaching anyway. And because men such as Brown and Earl Woods fought the toughest, bloodiest battles for decades, Tiger's approach to activism ought to be different.

Plowing the exact same ground would suggest Brown and Earl Woods made no progress, which we know isn't the case. We move on, probe for the newest ways to attack the old problems and new ones, too, using the most advanced methods we can find. People need to know that Tiger Woods's presence here in the D.C. area isn't only about golf. The moment Tiger announced he was hosting a tournament, the AT&T National, at Congressional Country Club , I suspected I knew why he wanted it here, specifically.

He could invite large-scale participation of the military community, which is the life Tiger grew up in and includes men and women he genuinely adores. And he could bring the Learning Center concept east, which would benefit tens of thousands more kids in need. When we talked yesterday at Congressional about a number of topics, one of the things Tiger spoke of is "a foundation that will be here for the long haul . . . but I just want to do it right. We've taken our time, because I want to get it right. . . . I don't want to make any mistakes."

I asked Tiger if it's possible that a conversation with Jim Brown might be productive, and Tiger answered, "That depends on whether both parties show up open minded."

One would hope that actual facts will open Brown's mind to the efforts of a young man who doesn't share the same personal history, but shares the belief that actions speak louder than words.

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