Meaning of Woods’ victory is overblown

Tiger Woods, champion. Tiger Woods, superstar. Tiger Woods, millionaire. Tiger Woods, minority. Before the youngest-ever Masters Tournament champion slipped on his new green jacket, the prestigious trophy of the historically all-white Augusta National Golf Club, commentators were already speaking in grand terms about the cultural significance of the event. Made more dramatic because it happened almost exactly 50 years after Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the African/Asian-American Woods broke another color barrier.
That Woods’ victory is a milestone is unquestioned, but the significance of such accomplishments is less clear than ever. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of Robinson’s debut and Woods’ masterful Masters, we’ve been deluged with a host of stories about all aspects of race and sports. For every congratulatory commentary there has been a story about the damage done by a misplaced emphasis on sports. Every story — positive or negative — is in turn greeted with criticism from all sides. Only from breadth of opinion and volume of voices emerges the tentative consensus that these events are somehow important.
Such is the history of the discussion of race in America. We are as quick to congratulate as we are to condemn, but painfully slow to engage in a direct dialogue. The spectrum of emotions involved — frustration, anger, guilt, hope, fear — is deep and encrypted. Detailed arguments break down some questions, while shorthand superlatives glaze over others. In the end we’ve talked a lot, but made little progress in bridging the complex and often painful gap in understanding.
Enter the icon, that peculiar American phenomenon to which we pin all aspirations and expectations. Whether athletes, actors or all-purpose celebrities, icons are supposedly ideals, therefore role models. Some accept this so-called duty, others chafe at it, but few have inherently earned it. By virtue of their prowess and prominence, stars are made the standard bearers for whatever demographic they represent: Ellen DeGeneres, gay comedian; Christopher Reeve, disabled actor; Tiger Woods, black golfer.
But icons are not a cross section of the populace or even a reliable indicator of social change. They are individuals, and exceptional individuals at that. Their success or failure has little to do with the culture at large. Arthur Ashe, for all his extraordinary efforts to be a role model in life and in death, did not change the game of tennis. He changed the many lives he touched as an individual. Half a century after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, racism is as endemic as it was then. Some progress has been made, and his character and determination are indeed an inspiration, but we have much farther to go.
When we lionize Tiger Woods as an indication of a new era, as many headlines have in recent days, we do a disservice to the profound and critical discussion of race in this nation. If his achievement opens a door for that dialogue, wonderful. If he chooses to use his stature to further that discussion, fantastic. But his unprecedented success should be celebrated for what it is: a record-breaking performance by an extremely talented young golfer, not a benchmark of social change in this country, in sports or even in golf itself.