February 24, 2008

The Tiger Effect And The Obama Phenomenon

Is Obamamania that different from pre-1997 Tigermania?

I can't help it. Something visceral tells me Tiger Woods has had something to do with the ascension of Barack Obama. Maybe a lot.

No doubt, eyes are rolling at our little niche magazine straining to put itself at the center of the zeitgeist by once again worshipping at the shrine of Tiger Woods. I sensed the remnants of such a reaction in the e-mail response of Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, who wrote, "I will admit that I find your premise [a] stretch that I had not considered before." Dr. Harry Edwards, America's authoritative voice on the complex intersection of race and sport, was kind enough to call back, but then politely dismissive. Citing Woods' longstanding reluctance to speak out on the social issues, Edwards said, "One has next to nothing to do with the other." Then, sensing someone dangerously trapped in the insular and detached world of golf, he sincerely added: "Not to tell you what to write, but I wouldn't go there."

Well, recklessly perhaps, I proceed nevertheless. To me, Obamamania really isn't all that different from Tigermania pre-1997 Masters. Woods was still mostly promise, although there was a certainty and presence and sense of destiny to the young man, the kind Obama increasingly has demonstrated in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Both manias reflect an America willing to trust its gut more than its head. But tellingly, with Woods there was no second-guessing, and the same seems to be true with Obama.

Woods himself trivialized Tigermania by providing mountains of substance over style, something Obama doesn't seem to doubt he can do as well. In the meantime, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has called the junior senator from Illinois the Tiger Woods of politics, and in a profile in the current issue of Vanity Fair, a friend likens the crowds growing behind Obama as he walks down city streets as "kind of like Tiger Woods at the Masters." With all due respect to Lapchick and Edwards, if people really associate -- subliminally or otherwise -- Obama with Woods' career arc of supreme excellence, then the biggest crossover figure in sports is without question boosting the candidate's chances of becoming the most important crossover figure in history.

The connection does not have to be personal to work for Obama. In fact, to this point the two have yet to meet or speak, and it would not be a great surprise if it turned out that Woods, given the way he honors his father's military service in Vietnam, would favor John McCain for the top office. (By the way, full disclosure: I'm backing Hillary Clinton).

But in the mind's eye, they match up. Both are good looking, in shape, graceful, confident. Their most obvious similarity, skin tone, creates a more nuanced connection. In much the same way that light-skinned black American public figures historically have been more comfortably celebrated by white America than their darker counterparts, both Woods and Obama are often perceived as "race neutral" or even "colorless." That impression has been strengthened by Woods' determination to always acknowledge his Thai ancestry, as well as to emphasize that his learning center is available equally to all children. For his part, Obama has pushed back against the idea of "injecting" race into his campaign. So while each grew up an outsider, their very multiculturalism presents enough connecting points that they are uniquely equipped to play Pied Piper in their separate realms (the politician -- by virtue of purpose and probably temperament -- more willing than the golfer). This especially plays out internationally, where Woods is extremely popular and an Obama presidency would appeal to foreign countries as an embodiment of America at its inclusive best.

Obama also benefits by Woods' success occurring in golf. It is the ball sport seen as requiring more internal skills than any other -- judgment, intelligence, emotional control, focus, organization, integrity -- in short, to borrow the Al Campanis term that revealed so much about how black athletes have too often been regarded by the white power structure, the "necessities." But by the measure of the old saw that says there is no better way to know a person than to accompany them for 18 holes, we know Tiger Woods (whose every shot for 29 holes last Sunday alone was televised) is tough, clutch, gracious in defeat and, above all, a winner. And who would doubt that despite playing an individual sport, he is also a leader?

Here's the big difference so far: Woods has achieved truly great things in his field, while Obama has yet to. But I'm convinced, for reasons mostly visceral but nonetheless real, Woods has helped people believe that Obama will.