Is Tiger Ready to Fist-Pump for the Cause?

We can only Hope.

We can only Hope.

“Down the road” has arrived! That’s the phrase Tiger Woods used (somewhat uncomfortably) about a year ago when a reporter asked him about then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Woods had steadfastly resisted overtures to publicly support any candidate, so when asked about Obama, Woods’ first reaction was “Oh, God, here we go again.”

Not exactly what those who’ve criticized Woods – as they did Michael Jordan before him – for not using his vast visibility to call attention to important political issues or support particular candidates were hoping to hear. Then he said of Obama:  “I think that he’s really inspired a bunch of people in our country, and we’ll see what happens down the road.”

Welcome to “down the road.”

On Sunday, Woods will be there among a plethora of celebs – Beyonce, Stevie Wonder and Denzel Washington, among them – speaking or performing during the “We Are One” event at the Lincoln Memorial, one of the highest-profile events of the inauguration celebration. He announced his participation on his website in a single-sentence declaration: “I am honored that I was invited to this historic event and look forward to participating in Sunday’s festivities.”

Earth-shattering, it’s not. But it’s a start. At least I hope it is.

I haven’t trashed Woods for not being more political while becoming the most dominant and popular (and rich) athlete of our generation. Nor did I really care one way or another whether he supported Obama.

Why? Myriad reasons.

For one, long gone are the days when athletes spoke for my “community.” I am African-American, and when I was a child, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor and many other black athletes were among the most visible and respected blacks in the nation. When they used their platform to speak out against racism, in whatever form, it boosted the efforts of those every-day activists – from Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose birthday we rightfully celebrate the day before this historic Inauguration Day) to Malcolm X to the Black Panthers.

Today while many athletes are popular and respected, they are different. Not just Woods, but all of them. They have not lived the struggle, therefore it is not their passion. (In fact, it may be more impactful that they are taking the time to get better educated about the struggle; just this week the Cleveland Cavaliers visited the National Civil Rights Museum during a trip to Memphis to play the Grizzlies. In many ways, today’s black athletes are playing catch-up.)

Tiger speaks

Tiger speaks

Woods has shown where his passion lies – helping children. And not just helping them perfect their draw or chip shot, but academically, helping them become technologically savvy and emotionally ambitious. That’s the mission of the Tiger Woods Foundation, and already it has accomplished more than most athletes and celebrities can claim.

Also, while it was encouraging to see athletes and entertainers step off their comfortable stages and endorse a candidate in the primary or general election, what clout did it have? Did anyone really decide to vote for Sen. John McCain because Brady Quinn joined the Republican nominee at a rally in Ohio? I doubt it.

Sure, if Woods had joined a rally (like many athletes and celebrities did) or handed out flyers or even worked a phone bank, it would have dominated the news cycle for a day, but in the end most of those photo ops amounted to little more than that.

Other endorsements mattered because the celebs not only said whom they preferred but also worked to effect change.

Jordan famously refused to back a black candidate for governor in his home state of North Carolina by saying: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Well, they buy music and see films, as well, and I admire those artists who did risk alienating some of their fans by coming out very vocally and passionately for a candidate, most of them for Obama.

And I’m not just talking about Oprah Winfrey, whose ratings and popularity did slip in the wake of her very public endorsement of Obama. Musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Jay-Z to Madonna incorporated their support for Obama into their concerts, often in very big ways. It may or may not have swayed any voters in what was a very emotion-laden race, and it certainly may have cost them some sales.

Other celebrities did work phone banks, hand out fliers or plant signs in support of their candidate.

And they did it because they were passionate about it.

Tiger Woods, well-schooled by Earl, knows the struggle. I’ve talked to him privately, so I know he knows. Publicly, though, he had not yet reached that juncture in the “road.”

Maybe now he has.

Maybe now Woods is passionate about trying to effect that kind of change the 44th President of the United States has called for since he first launched his candidacy years ago.

Maybe now Woods, now a father, has grown so that he can comfortably step into the void left by Brown, Russell, Ali and others and speak to issues and needs that matter to all of us.

Maybe this is finally “down the road” for Tiger Woods.

We can only hope.

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