No Victory, No Redemption: The Demonization of Tiger Woods

January 13, 2024
7 mins read

By David J. Leonard |with thanks to NewBlackMan


Monday, April 16, 2012.

The American media experienced a major buzz kill last weekend. Prepared to launch the “Tiger Woods redemption” tour – part celebration of his ability to persevere and make it back and bigger part jubilation for the willingness of the American public to accept Tiger back in good graces – the media found itself with Bubbha instead of Tiger.  Having won a tournament a few weeks back, his first in three years, Woods was on the precipice of receiving national absolution, through stories of redemption and forgiveness. Unfortunately for the media salivating at the prospect of celebrating itself and an exceptional American populace that can look beyond Woods’ “transgression,” Woods failed to deliver, finishing in a distant 40th place.

The efforts to link redemption to victory is telling in itself as it illustrates how winning and athletic success determines the narrative and value placed upon Tiger Woods within the public discourse. When winning, he was “America’s multicultural son,” yet his fall from the leader board, even more than his infidelity and personal difficulties, is the source of both the criticism and the calls for him to redeem himself before the alter of the American public.

Worse yet, in the eyes of the media, he has continued to act not like “gentlemen.”  Calling his performance “embarrassing” and his club kicking unacceptable because of what has happened over the last three years, Michael C. Jones describes his 2012 Masters in the following way:

“Woods needs to clean up his act, and he’s smart enough to know that he needs to do so for more than just his public image. He’s being scorned for his attitude throughout the debacle at Augusta National and rightly so. As an ambassador of the game, he’s showing mental weakness that is a far cry from the signature psychological edge the old Tiger used to display during each one of his 14 major victories.

His mind is in a wandering state, and he’s gotten away from having fun on the golf course. He needs to get back to that for the sake of his game. Beyond just the club-kicking, Woods’ demonstrative displays of bitter anger at one of the most sacred venues in golf’s history show that he has no control and no regard for the way he carries himself. If he truly means what he said in his famous apology in February 2010, then he will act accordingly and at the very least refrain from making a complete fool of himself.”

The constant references to his marital situation and the club kicking is revealing because it reflects an overall subtext that imagines the world of golf as a place defined by whiteness and its upper-class identity, as a space of proper decorum, desired values, and gentlemen disposition.  “Golf has always placed a special premium on honor and good sportsmanship,” writes Orin Starn in his newly published The Passion of Tiger Woods. “You’re supposed to maintain a respectful, church-like silence every time your playing partner is about to hit a shot.” (p. 46). Reflecting the history of race, class, and notions of civilization, the culture of golf oversees its operations on and off the links.  Similarly, David Whitley, noting the ample public shaming directed at Woods in recent years, describes Woods as a 5-year who needs public scolding as part of his redemption process.

Evident here, Tiger has failed to uphold these values; evident in his infidelity and his kicking a club, Tiger once thought to be the future of golf has betrayed this possibility.  Yet, in reading this column and others, all would be forgiven if he just won, revealing what values matter most within America’s victory culture.

What becomes clear in reading the media narrative is as follows: (1) Tiger is immature; (2) Tiger is a bad person; and (3) without success on the course, he has little appeal.  His redemption starts and ends with titles, particularly Majors.  This point was sadly illustrated in a troubling and surprising column from Robert Lipsyte, whose relationship with the likes of Dick Gregory and Muhammad Ali leaves me baffled by his piece about Woods. Entitled “The Lost Boys”(reference to Lost Boys of Sudan?), Lipsyte laments Woods’ fall from grace, linking his career to that of Tyson and Simpson:

“When Tiger crashed his car in 2009 and the turgid details of his psycho sex life emerged,  I had the same thought I had in 1997 when Mike, after three years in jail for rape, bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear while losing a title fight: This is how you declare emotional bankruptcy when you’ve been conditioned to never quit, when blowing up your world is the only way out.

Maybe O.J.’s blundering kidnapping and armed robbery caper in 2007 was also a psychic suicide. It seemed too silly to be judged seriously, so I figured he was sentenced for being acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend in 1995. I had been ridiculed for my theory then that O.J. was protecting the real killer, his son, knowing he could beat the rap while the kid couldn’t. I’m delighted that the theory has reappeared in a new book. O.J. is 64 and in prison until at least 2017.”

Offering a less than optimistic view of his future inside and outside of golf, Lipsyte offered the following conclusion:

“None of the Lost Boys was able to craft his own character, to be his own man. Cus created his son to whip the world but not to find and hold his place in it. O.J. had too many fathers – coaches, producers, directors – and he spent his life trying to please them. By the closing rounds of the Masters, it began to seem possible that Tiger was ready to hole out and join them.”

America’s celebration of sports as a vehicle for the American Dream is on full display.  Linking Woods to Simpson and Tyson, Lipsyte celebrates the beauty of athletes, particularly those of color, pulling themselves to reach greatness, financial success, and cultural primacy.  Yet, each has “wasted” an opportunity for themselves, and for the nation.  Here, and elsewhere Woods faces criticism because his personal failures has set back America’s post-racial project. According to Starn:

“The amazing success of this young brown-skinned man in a formerly white sport seemed to support the familiar Fox News, Rush Limbaugh-style view that the only real impediments to black advancement are black laziness, broken families, or as a more explicitly racist view has it, inferior genes – in other words, that the blame for inner-city violence and persisting poverty lies with blacks alone.  When white golf fans cheered for Tiger, it sometimes felt as if they were also congratulating themselves, demonstrates their own enlightened racial good will by embracing a golfer of color. By this way of thinking, those roars for Tiger provided yet more proof that Martin Luther King Jr.’s great dream of a color-blind society was close to realization, it not already realized, at last (p. 73).”

Tiger’s failure to be a “good role model,” to continue to dominate the golfing world, and to now fulfill the promise of redemption impairs the ability of fans and the media to cheer for Tiger . .. err America’s post-racial utopia.

We also see the efforts to link Tiger’s failures on the course to his failures as a husband.  His betrayal of history, the American Dream, and King’s Dream rests with his unchecked libido and temper, pathologizing his limited success over the last three years. Seemingly ignoring his physical ailments over the last three years, the nature of golf, and the difficult benchmarks he set for himself, the discourse has continually framed his struggles on the course in relationship to the volatility of his life.  Whether referencing the importance of fathers as source of discipline (prominent with Lipsyte piece) or otherwise depicting Woods as “out-of-control,” the media has used his struggles on the course to blame him for his own demise.  This leads me back to Lipsyte piece.

In linking Woods to Simpson and Tyson, we see the power and resonance in the criminalization of black bodies, particularly those seen as undisciplined and disruptive.  While Simpson sits in jail and remains guilty of murder in the minds of many, and while Tyson spent three years in prison for rape and has had countless interactions with the criminal justice system, Woods has had no such experience.  His only major public transgression (swearing and kicking a club is not a transgression) has been his infidelity, leaving me to wonder if Tiger is not either the next Rick Pitino and Elliot Spitzer, both of who have moved beyond their past sexual indiscretions or maybe he will be Brett Favre, Anthony Weiner or Mark Sanford.

The efforts to compare Woods to other “criminals” to people who have been under the control of the criminal justice system is telling in that his body is always overdetermined by his criminalized blackness.  The antipathy and criticism he has faced reflects the unfettered desire to see Woods as a transracial figure, an illusion evident by the ubiquity of his racialized and criminalized body.  In other words, he is black because he hasn’t fulfilled his bargain of creating a colorblind America, yet another reminder that it is the media and not Woods that continues to hurl shots out of bounds.      


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.

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