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It’s time for blacks to forgive Tiger Woods

One of the greatest athletes of his generation deserves our support

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Aug. 31, 2018 and has been updated to reflect Tiger’s Masters win, his first major victory in 11 years.

Isn’t it long past time that black America forgave Tiger Woods?

He has been on a roll lately, his back problems in check, his golf game in sync. Clearly, many other fans already are on board. Spectators thronged the gallery as Woods, one of the greatest athletes of his generation, nearly won his 15th major earlier this month at the PGA Championship outside St. Louis. In August, he finished 14 shots off the pace at The Northern Trust tournament in New Jersey. That was good for only 40th place, but it felt like it was just a matter of time before Woods broke through with his first victory since 2013. On Sunday, that finally happened when he captured the Tour Championship.

What’s not to like about any of that? Soon, assuming his health holds up, Woods will face off for crazy money against one of his toughest rivals. Last week, he signed a deal to play a $9 million winner-take-all pay-per-view match against Phil Mickelson on Nov. 23. It all amounts to the kind of spectacle that even casual sports fans can’t resist.

I know rooting for Woods can be controversial — particularly among African-Americans, who felt betrayed by his long-ago declaration that he is not black but Cablinasian. But if we are honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that it should not be.

Many fans of all races turned on Woods when they learned in 2009 that he flagrantly and repeatedly cheated on his wife. The scandal cost Woods dearly. He lost an estimated $50 million a year in endorsements, faced public ridicule and saw his marriage disintegrate. He went into rehab for sex addiction and, with his mother in the audience, issued a televised public apology for his conduct. He became an emotional wreck, and before long he was a physical wreck too.

Rooting for Woods can be controversial — particularly among African-Americans, who felt betrayed by his long-ago declaration that he is not black but Cablinasian.

There was nothing admirable about that period, which is now almost a decade in the past. But it is also true that the damage he caused was limited to himself and his family. Athletes, and people in every other profession, get divorced all the time. And when the details go public, they are often ugly.

What is the proper penalty for that? Whatever it is, it seems that Woods has more than paid up.

Even before all of that, many black fans were let down when the mixed-race Woods publicly identified himself as Cablinasian. That one hit hard for African-Americans who celebrated Woods as a racial pioneer and interpreted his stance as a rejection. The fact that his wife and many mistresses were white transformed the disappointment into outright hostility.

The jokes were biting. Some said Woods would find out he was black if he tried to catch a cab at night. Others called Woods by his legal first name, Eldrick, in a tone that suggested that he somehow saw himself as white, or at least felt the need to kowtow to whites. Many people chuckled when Woods was arrested in Florida last May after being found asleep at the wheel of his still-running Mercedes-Benz and police identified him as “black.”

I am sure if I looked hard enough, I could find some complexity in my own racial lineage, yet I identify as black. That’s my choice. Former President Barack Obama, who is half-white and grew up in a white household, also identifies as black. That’s his choice. But that does not mean that Woods — who can see Asian, Indian, black and white roots in his parents — should have to do the same.

The practice of formally policing racial identity in America began with racist whites and was once carried out by the federal government. As recently as 1930, census takers were told that a person who was both black and white should be categorized as black, “no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood.”

The so-called one-drop rule was built on the racist notion that somehow black blood is a stain that would overwhelm the rest of one’s heritage. Now, it’s too often publicly enforced by black folks. If Woods chooses not to define himself by racial categories once assigned by whites, good for him.

Woods has not helped himself with black folks by maintaining an apparently warm relationship with President Donald Trump, who a recent poll found is seen as a racist by almost half the country and nearly 4 out of 5 African-Americans. Over the years, the two have golfed and dined together, and when asked last weekend about his feelings toward a president widely viewed as racially divisive, Woods sidestepped.

“Well, he’s the president of the United States. You have to respect the office,” he said. “No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office.”

Still, anyone who took the time to learn about Woods’ background would think highly of his sense of history and his social consciousness. Throughout his career, he has paid homage to golf’s black pioneers, including Charlie Sifford, the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour. Woods, who named his own son Charlie and referred to the late Sifford as his “grandfather,” has said repeatedly that trailblazers like Sifford helped clear his own path to success.

As for matters of the heart, they are just that. The culture celebrates Serena Williams as “the Queen” and a paragon of black womanhood — and who’s to argue with that, given her tennis prowess and the pride she engenders among many African-Americans? Does that change because she chose to marry a white man? I would think not.

LeBron James was hailed for lifting athletic philanthropy to a new level last month after he helped open a new public school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. It launched with a reported $2 million donation from his foundation and commitments for tens of millions more in the future.

In 2016, the Tiger Woods Foundation spent more than $10 million on college scholarships and after-school centers for low-income students. With little fanfare, the Woods Foundation has spent similar amounts each year for much of its two-decade existence.

Beyond all of that, Woods is working toward a comeback story for the ages. So please forgive him. Or if you can’t, please forgive me for saying, “Go, Tiger, go.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.