Anthropologist takes hard look at Tiger Woods scandal

The cover of “The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race and Celebrity Scandal” by Orin Stam is shown. — PHOTO/DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS/JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN CENTER BOOK

Duke University Professor Orin Starn casts his anthropological eye on three topics most academics wouldn’t touch: celebrity scandal, golf and race.

Perhaps the best golfer ever, Tiger Woods, rocketed to the top of a once whites-only sport. Endorsements made him a global brand and the world’s richest athlete. The child of a multiracial marriage, Woods and his blond, blue-eyed wife, Elin Nordegren, seemed to represent a new post-racial America. Then, in late 2009, Woods became embroiled in a sex scandal that made headlines worldwide. In this concise yet far-reaching analysis dissecting the social, economic and political strands of “Tigergate,” Starn’s book — “The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal” (Duke University Press/John Hope Franklin Center Book, $19.99) — gets at the heart of American culture in the 21st century.

His examination brings to light a society that celebrated Tiger Woods as “post-racial” during his reign as the most powerful man in sports quickly discarded that characterization often in ugly, vulgar terms — in the aftermath of his tawdry 2010 sex scandal. In doing so, an America obsessed with scandal and fueled by anonymity demonstrated the power of predictable and divisive stereotypes about race, fame and celebrity.

“What’s interesting to me about the Tiger Woods scandal is that it really says so much about 21st century America,” explained Starn. “It says a lot about the place of golf in our culture. It says a lot about the oversized place of celebrity scandal, and it also says a lot about race. Tiger had become, in his years of great glory and success, this mythic icon of a post-racial America.

He was married to a blonde-haired Swedish woman, his mother is Thai, his father is African American, he has these two mixed-race kids and the family has two dogs. So they seem to embody this quite beautiful vision of diversity and multiculturalism and an America where people from all different backgrounds get along. So Tiger goes from a post-racial icon to the cover of Vanity Fair published after the scandal broke where he’s hyper-masculine, hip-hop-posed-shirtless, Tupac-like-rapper-air. The sex scandal activated these still very present, and pretty horrifying, stereotypes about Black masculinity and sexuality and what Blackness means to American culture.”

Starn’s book is the result of two years of research on Woods, a mixed-race athlete widely considered among the top golfers in history. But its themes stretch more broadly, delving into golf’s historical reluctance to embrace diversity and America’s current anxiety and obsession with sex, race and celebrity. “When it was convenient, America embraced Tiger Woods as a post-racial ideal of the society we’d like to be,” said Starn, chair of Duke cultural anthropology department. “But when the scandal hit, Tiger was quickly demoted to ‘just another Black guy’ status.”

Through interviews, observation and a thorough mining of Internet commentary, Starn illustrates that many opinions of Woods and the sexual dalliances that led to his divorce and temporary career implosion fall along predictable racial lines. Some Blacks were outraged that all of Woods’ alleged mistresses were white, Starn notes. Meanwhile, racists on the Internet quickly and gleefully mocked Woods’ fall from grace, deriding him in vulgar terms.

This abrupt shift was expressed most vividly on Internet websites and message boards, illustrating how far America still has to go before it gets beyond race, Starn says: “Race has become a lose-lose game. There’s a fixed set of views, positions and roles around race that get articulated over and over again. We’re on this racial treadmill that doesn’t get us anywhere new.”

For more than 20 years, Starn has focused his research on social movements and indigenous politics, particularly in Latin America and native North America. In tackling the Woods scandal, Starn immersed himself in the seedy side of the World Wide Web — the message boards, chat rooms and news comment sections where people say what they really think. The results were eye-opening, says Starn, who maintains a blog about golf, sports and society at http://golfpolitics.blogspot.com/

“There’s a whole set of things you can’t say without losing your job, being put on administrative leave or having to make an apology,” he says. “So you might think racism and racial stereotyping doesn’t exist in America. But Internet chat rooms are where you can find it, the underbelly of American race relations.”

“The Passion of Tiger Woods” is available in bookstores, on Amazon, and as an e-reader. Duke University Professor Orin Starn will answer questions about his book and the culture of golf in a live webcast Jan. 26 at noon on the Duke University Ustream channel, http://ustream.tv/dukeuniversity; to submit a question, send an email to live@duke.edu.

 

Contact Staff Writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or bbooker@phillytrib.com.

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