Tiger Woods is getting a second chance to make a real difference. This time around, as one of the world's most influential athletes, he should be ready to stand up and accept the challenge.
The question is, however, whether Tiger has it in him to publicly wage an offensive against racial stereotypes, insensitivity and flat-out bigotry. Or will he again shy away from the opportunity as he did as a much younger man 16 years ago?
No, Tiger is not obliged to take on the issue, and, yes, doing so could have some adverse effects for the world’s top-ranked golfer. But more important than the obligation or the risk, Tiger has a second chance to step up for the first time, and everyone, including Sergio Garcia, would be better off for it.
Indeed, this is not the first instance Woods has been faced with racially insensitive remarks made by another PGA Tour star. At the 1997 Masters, it was Fuzzy Zoeller who suggested that Tiger, who was on his way to his first Masters title, not serve “fried chicken and collard greens” at the following year’s champions' dinner.
It was an off-the-cuff comment just like Sergio’s that subsequently caused a firestorm similar to the one the Spaniard is embroiled in today. Woods, who at the time was only 21 years old, shied away from the controversy those remarks drew, and took criticism for not being more outspoken about it. Ironically, he also took heat for not bailing out Fuzzy in the wake of the remarks.
Now a much more mature 37-year-old man and a father of two, Woods again has the opportunity to make a difference after Sergio repeated Zoeller’s mistake recently.
It’s not a competitive thing. Nor does it have anything to do with his simmering feud with Garcia. It’s not even about marking Garcia as a racist. It’s likely that Tiger, who isn't exactly Sergio’s best friend, doesn't even think of him as that. But Garcia's comments were racist and certainly display a danger and stereotypical attitude toward African Americans that is still prevalent today but should have no place in our society.
With the U.S. Open nearing, Woods should call the media together for a discussion of racial sensitivity and renew his efforts to bring more diversity to the game of golf—a movement that appears to have stalled the past couple of years.
He could suggest being the front man for public service announcements about what is out of bounds when it comes to hurtful stereotypes and “off color” comments such as the one Sergio authored this week.
As uncomfortable as it might be, he could even sit down with Sergio in front of cameras and discuss the underlying roots to comments that perpetuate racial myths. Talk about a powerful moment for an important message.
It would make a difference because no other athlete this side of Michael Jordan has owned the capability of sparking public discourse and debate as Tiger does. Yet like Jordan, Woods has typically shied away from wading into the pool of societal debate. And, like his "Airness," has taken criticism for it.
Yet in the here and now, Woods has an opportunity to turn controversy into opportunity, inaction directly into action. Jordan passed on making a difference off the basketball court. Tiger still has the opportunity to do it away from the golf course.
Consider for a moment that if a man of Woods' stature, wealth and influence can not once but twice face such publicly racist comments, what must lesser athletes of color and everyday Joes and Janes deal with on a regular basis. The voice they lack can be picked up by a motivated Woods with true convictions on the subject.
Whatever the medium or the method, Tiger could do some real good if he takes the ball mistakenly handed to him by Garcia and runs with it. He could also really help himself in the process.
Woods has already earned points for the way he's handled the feud with Garcia over the past week or so, highlighted by his gracious statements on Twitter in the wake of the now infamous comments. By making this issue his own and keeping the dialogue about racial insensitivity in the forefront, it will show just how much he has matured and how far he has come.
It will also help make the world a better place for his children, who, despite all the advantages of wealth and privilege, will face racism in their lives just as their father has.
Bottom line: We get that Tiger Woods is a professional golfer first and foremost, and a darn good one at that. In a perfect world, the color of his skin wouldn't call him to a higher purpose, but this is anything but a perfect world.
By stepping up, Woods could affect some real change. That’s a legacy that would go beyond career wins and major championships. It’s an opportunity he wasn't ready for when it first presented itself years ago. It’s one he would do well to accept now.