In the run-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, a friend of mine sat in a meeting during which a senior golf industry executive wondered aloud about the possibility that a member of the U.S. team might take a knee during the ceremonies to protest racial injustice. It was a laughable notion, since the only issues on which PGA Tour players have been apt to take a stand are slow play and high taxes.
The murder of yet another unarmed black man—in this instance, George Floyd, who died at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer—has brought the country to a reckoning with its persistent, ugly shortcomings on matters of race, a bench-clearing brawl in which not even professional golfers could remain on the sidelines.
A lengthy list of players posted a simple black box to social media as part of #BlackoutTuesday, an effort to draw attention to complex issues surrounding injustice. A simple gesture of solidarity against racism drew a drearily predictable response. Justin Thomas was immediately asked why he wasn’t condemning looting, the kind of doltish question favored by people who would likely demand to know why an E.R. doctor wasn’t treating the acne on a trauma patient. Brooks Koepka added a simple, declarative caption to his post: “I stand with you.”
He too was circled by blowhards too feebleminded to understand their own racism.
To be fair, seeing golfers join #BlackoutTuesday is a little like watching those last few kids climb on their desks at the end of Dead Poets Society, when the lack of repercussions is clear, when it’s not just the right thing to do but the popular thing to do. But taken alongside Rory McIlroy’s recent criticism of Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, these posts hint at a watershed moment when some Tour pros finally voice sentiments that run counter to the fact-free, Fox News Channel echo chamber in which so many of their fellow golfers reside.
Statements of convenience? Sure, but also of conscience.
Others choose to post inspirational quotes urging racial unity, an admirable conviction that gives them no apparent pause to rethink their enthusiastic support for a racist president. They’re appalled at the looting of stores, but not of the Treasury. They’re horrified at the disregard for curfew laws, but not of constitutional norms. They insist on their right to bear arms against government overreach, but don’t mind if the army is dispatched against fellow Americans. But hey, stock portfolios are important too, right guys?
It’s a recurring reflection of golf’s suffocating sameness that any time a polarizing issue arises involving identity there are dishearteningly few voices to whom one might turn for personal experience. In 2018, Tadd Fujikawa came out, the first golfer of any profile to do so and I was invited to discuss the news on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive show. Five panelists contributed to what was a thoughtful segment, but I was the only gay man on the screen. There was simply no one else in our game open enough to be invited.
Things are scarcely better in our corner of sport when it comes to race. My Golf Channel colleague and friend Damon Hack penned an achingly eloquent essay on his experience as a black man in America. Harold Varner III issued a compelling account of his American dream journey, from not having lunch money in high school to the Tour, while acknowledging the nightmare experienced by so many of his fellow African Americans. His revulsion at the death of George Floyd does not diminish his disgust at the subsequent violence.
Of course, the voice many of us wished to hear was that of Tiger Woods, and on Monday evening he joined a long line of African-American sports figures who had spoken out. He released a statement in which he expressed his pain for the suffering of George Floyd’s family, before quickly pivoting to his admiration for law enforcement and a plea for progress through education. Those are all noble sentiments, but Woods’s statement was notable for omitting a single mention of the fetid racial injustice that underpins the story of George Floyd and the many others like him.
Woods has spent his career avoiding taking stands on divisive issues, which is fair enough. There is an unreasonable yoke of expectation placed on African-American athletes to take public, principled stands on non-sporting matters. Not everyone has the courage or passion of a Muhammad Ali, an Arthur Ashe, or a Colin Kaepernick, but even the original corporate cipher Michael Jordan didn’t disguise his anger about where we find ourselves today.
By Tuesday afternoon, golf’s governing bodies were showing equally differing approaches on social media. The LPGA issued a clear, unambiguous statement against racism and injustice. The USGA joined #BlackoutTuesday. The PGA Tour made no statement of its own, but retweeted those by Woods and Varner. And the PGA of America? Its Twitter account had three quick tips for a smooth takeaway.
There will always be those who say no statement is necessary or desirable, that never the twain of sport and politics should meet. That stance is a luxury of the privileged, and invariably adopted by those averse to hearing views that discomfit or that contradict their own, who write “stick to golf” so frequently on Twitter that it now autocompletes as they type.
Those who want athletes to shut up and dribble and those who want them to speak out both understand one truth: silence speaks volumes. It says a great deal about our current state of affairs that even Tiger Woods knows silence is not an option.
Published at Golfweek.com, June 2, 2020.