A growing list of athletes have declined invitations from President Donald Trump to visit the White House as a stance against his racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Sadly, Tiger Woods isn’t one of them.
The golf legend was due at the White House Monday to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom for winning the Masters last month in what marked a career comeback for the 43-year-old after a decade of injuries and losses. He won’t be the first athlete to garner such an accolade. Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson and Arnold Palmer are among those bestowed the honor since President John F. Kennedy created the award in 1963.
Mr. Woods made an indelible mark on the sport of golf and certainly is as legendary and deserving of the honor as the athletes who came before him.
Despite this, we wish Mr. Woods would have taken a stand against hatred and declined the award given the racial and ethnic rift Mr. Trump has widened and exploited in the country since taking office. (As we have noted many times before, hate crimes have unmistakably risen under Mr. Trump.)
Just because he is famous doesn’t mean Mr. Woods has any obligation to be a spokesman against racism in America. He did indeed train all his life to play golf, not lead a modern day Civil Rights movement. But his position as a star athlete, particularly as an African-American in a sport that has historically been overwhelmingly white, makes him a role model in this regard whether he likes it or not. He could use this opportunity to raise awareness of an issue that has surely impacted his life, as well as those of many of his relatives and ancestors. Or he could at least decline to allow the president to co-opt his glory with a White House photo-op.
Is Mr. Woods oblivious, or does he just not care that the president regularly demonizes minorities and emboldens those who hate? He has been spotted on golfing outings with the president on at least two occasions since he took office, including most recently in February, when golfer Jack Nicklaus also joined the pair.
When asked once about his association with Mr. Trump, Mr. Woods suggested it is OK to disregard the things you don’t like about people.
“He’s the president of the United States,” Mr. Woods said at the Northern Trust golf tournament, according to GolfDigest.com. “You have to respect the office. No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office.”
Taking a kid glove approach to race is nothing new for Mr. Woods, so his feelings toward Mr. Trump should not come as a complete surprise. Some African Americans have long taken him to task for saying he gets offended when called African American, instead referring to himself as “cablinasian,” a term he coined to reflect his mixed Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian heritage.
He may want to divorce himself from the legacy of racism in this country, but not everybody sees it that way. Consider golf legend Fuzzy Zoeller’s reaction to Woods’ historic 1997 Masters Tournament win:
"He's doing quite well. Pretty impressive,” Mr. Zoeller said. “The little boy is driving it well. He's putting well. He's doing everything it takes to win. So you know what you guys do when he gets in here? Pat him on the back. Say congratulations. Enjoy it. And tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it? Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve." (Mr. Zoeller later said he was joking, but not everybody believed this. Mr. Woods let it slide.)
But taking a stand on race can be bad for business. (Just ask Colin Kaepernick.) And Tiger Woods has always been about the business of Tiger Woods, and this trip to the White House is no exception.
Politics aside, this was a brand-building opportunity for two business associates. As recently outlined by The New York Times, Mr. Woods has a contract to design a golf course for one of Mr. Trump’s properties in Dubai, and a villa at a Trump Miami property is named after Mr. Woods. This award only helps Mr. Trump prosper off the association with Mr. Woods’ celebrity.
Mr. Woods has made his choice, and part of his legacy will be embracing a man who incited bigotry and racism. That’s the opposite of athletes like basketball players Stephen Curry and Lebron James who have declined White House visits and openly criticized the president. Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he will not visit the White House when his team is honored for last fall’s World Series title Thursday because of Mr. Trump’s response to the devastation left on his native Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Many families are still living without basic necessities such as electricity.
Unlike Tiger Woods, these athletes are using the platform they have been granted to stand up for something they believe in. They will be remembered for it.