By His Wounds We Have Already Been Entertained: Tiger Woods, The Masters, and the Ritual of Celebrity Disgrace

“Now that is rich!”

Those were the words I (Dan) spoke to myself when I clicked on the Toronto Star web site this past Thursday only to find the headline, “Augusta chairman comes out swinging at Tiger Woods.”

I showed the article to my colleague, Trina Jones, and a long, impassioned, and difficult discussion ensued. The following article is the product, written in three parts, of our discussion. While Dan’s voice predominates in the first section, and Trina’s in the second, there are echoes of each voice throughout. The voices speak equally in the third.

For readers not tuned in to the rhythms of the sporting-world, one of golf’s most prestigious tournaments of the year, The Masters, was played this past weekend at its traditional site, the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The big news this year was that Tiger Woods, he of recent sex scandal fame, came out of his four-month-long, self-imposed exile to compete for one of golf’s most prized possessions, the green jacket awarded to the winner of the Masters.

According to the Great Public Ritual of Celebrity Disgrace, this tournament represented Tiger’s first, tentative and chastened step toward his ultimate redemption, regardless of where he finished on the leader board. Indeed, as the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick have taught us, the Ritual of Celebrity Disgrace has a particular liturgical progression: the Period of Public Shaming gives way to the Period of Chastened Press Conferences and Interviews; then comes the Period of Tentative Return to Action (the phase Tiger has just entered); and finally comes the Restoration of Public Adoration and Product Endorsements (Tiger may have jumped the gun a little here).

When the Great Public Ritual is performed well, the celebrity passes seamlessly from disgrace to redemption, from public revulsion to public acclaim. Aside from Bryant and Vick, celebrities like Magic Johnson, Ray Lewis and Bill Clinton have performed the ritual with virtuosity; celebrities like Mark McGwire, Rod Blagojevich, and Pete Rose… not so much.

Evidently, however, the Chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club is not attuned to the rhythms of this Great Ritual, for he chose the eve of the Masters to issue a public condemnation of Tiger—for his “egregious” actions that let “our kids and grandkids” down.

Did the Chairman not know that, according to the Great Ritual, the days of righteous anger over Tiger’s immoral ways are now far behind us?

To paraphrase the Good Book, Tiger has already been despised and rejected; he has already been a man of sorrows, familiar with self-induced suffering. We have already judged him stricken by sex addiction, smitten by the ladies, and afflicted with perversion. He has already been pierced by the media for his transgressions, and crushed for his iniquities; the punishment that brought us (the media-saturated public) great satisfaction has already been placed upon him. And by his wounds we have already been entertained.

But that’s all over now. The Suffering Tiger has already held his press conferences; he has already answered the questions about his sordid affairs; he has already expressed remorse; he has already vowed to change. And so the media affliction stopped—several weeks ago, in fact.

Mr. Chairman, your public “smackdown” of Tiger not only said nothing others haven’t already said many times over; it was also liturgically way out of place.

But none of this is what elicited my reaction to the Toronto Star article. What made the Chairman’s censure rich—meaning, loaded with irony, and oozing with hypocrisy—was the person who delivered it, and the institution that person represents.

For here was the Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club—the golf club that is the icon of privilege and elitism—lecturing Tiger about morality. The same Augusta National that until 1990 did not admit black members—and did so only after it gave in to extreme public pressure in the backlash of the Shoal Creek controversy. This is the same golf club that still refuses to admit women, despite years of pressure from powerful organizations like the National Council of Women’s Organizations and despite the potential loss of corporate sponsorship over its exclusionary policies. This is the same golf club that is so elitist that there is no formal application process (don’t call us, we’ll call you), and whose “300 or so members are a who’s who of corporate power and old money,” according to USA Today. It is “an old boys club… [whose members] come mainly from the country’s old-line industries: banking and finance, oil and gas, manufacturing and distributing.”

In a sport that battles its image as elitist, white, and country club-ish, Augusta National stands proudly and defiantly as the beacon of golf’s glory days of yore—a sport that white gentlemen played on their private grounds of power and privilege.

And now, the Chairman, Billy Payne, speaking on behalf of this über-elitist, men’s-only and (until very recently) whites-only club, wants to cast judgment on Tiger Woods? Augusta National heads for the moral high ground?

Now that is rich!

Or, in the snappy and satisfying words of Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star:

Who knew God made a high horse low enough for [Club Chairman] Billy Payne to saddle? All I know is the authorities better kill it, lest O.J. Simpson or Bernie Madoff mount the nag in a prison break.

And then later:

Augusta National Golf Course, home to America’s premier golf event, stands as a shining symbol of white male supremacy. From that perch, you do not get to lecture about who has and hasn’t let America’s children down.

But there is more to the rich irony of the Chairman of Augusta National, the quintessential symbol of power and privilege, castigating Tiger for his moral turpitude. For in Billy Payne’s eve-of-the-Masters speech, we witness powerful symbols of race, class, sex and gender careening toward each other in the Large Hadron Collider of cultural subtext.

Charles Barkley might have been the first point this out during a recent radio interview. With his trademark understatement and delicacy, Barkley commented:

And then you have this punk-ass Billy Payne that goes on TV yesterday. First of all, he ain’t told his kids and grandkids to be like Tiger Woods. Let’s not kid ourselves. He ain’t tell his kids and grandkids to be like Tiger Woods. For them to get on there and act like he’s all Uncle Tom, the master on the plantation, that piss me off. I wish somebody would just walk up to him and punch him in his face.

In his own inimitable way, Barkley gave voice to a host of issues clarified beautifully by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger. Ambiguities (and ambiguous people, in particular) tend to make people nervous. When it comes to social groupings and power structures, people like to know who’s who and what’s what: we want to know who we are and where we stand.

Think of what many of us do in middle school and high school: we spend a lot of time trying to figure out the geography of social groupings so that we can either become a member of a desirable group, or at the very least, avoid getting in the way of the groups in power. Being able to navigate this territory is especially important to the people who don’t really fit in, because the marginal people are usually the ones who get beaten up.

This dynamic is dramatized in many movies that involve one group of teenagers being mean to some other group of teenagers—Mean Girls and High School Musical, for example. We define who “we” are by juxtaposing ourselves to some form of “them,” often by shaming or otherwise making fun of (or threatening) people who have stepped out of line, so as to get them back into place. Social divisions, group structures, and a clarification of the “proper” ways various people are “supposed” to behave make us feel safe: once things are identified and labeled clearly, all the parts of the social machine can function more smoothly.

Tiger Woods, as Barkley points out, has never entirely fit into the socially-prescribed roles that underlie the elite, private sector of the country club portion of the golfing world. Barkley’s allusion to Uncle Tom and his cabin was perhaps unwittingly acute.

If a dominant social structure is like a house, one could think of socially ambiguous, liminal figures as being like the things behind the walls that we can’t quite see, but that we can hear, feel, and sense wandering around in the foundations. Located in the crevices of the social structure, the in-between things are really important, like the plaster that holds up the walls: it is on the basis of the plaster’s existence that we can build the house. In other words, it is only on the basis of the plaster’s existence that the walls can stand up as walls: the things that “fit” can only define themselves against the things that don’t. We can only have definite insiders if we also have definite outsiders.

But what about the things that are in the crevices of the crevices—the things that wander around in the plaster’s cracks? These figures (like Tiger Woods)—those who are not entirely in but also not entirely out—are potentially dangerous, because if they change places and come out from behind the walls, and in so doing, widen the cracks in the plaster, the plaster might become weakened and no longer hold. People like Tiger might take the walls down with them.

Within the context of an admittedly oversimplified and stereotypical version of the Old South, Tiger Woods sits firmly in the margins of the structure. He approached a sport of the privileged whose boundaries and exclusions had, at one time, been clearly delimited in terms of class, race, and sex. Tiger is male, so he posed no threat there. And he is clearly and indisputably good at golf, so has never been marginal in that sense. But Tiger is clearly not white.

Before proceeding, let’s clarify precisely what and whom we’re talking about here. We understand that Tiger Woods is not the first non-white professional golfer in the history of the sport; he is not the Jackie Robinson of the PGA. Neither is he the first non-white golfer invited by Augusta National to compete for the Masters. Tiger is not even the only non-white golfer to win the tournament.

We also understand that Tiger didn’t sneak up on the establishment of Augusta National and slip in a window. Augusta National welcomed Tiger inside, and Tiger behaved with impeccable manners: he was deferential to his elders and he carried himself with class (the odd expletive on the golf course notwithstanding).

So, in one sense, Tiger is an insider. But in another sense—the one Barkley alludes to, and the one crucial to our analysis—though Tiger might be on the inside, for many, he doesn’t entirely belong. And he doesn’t belong in a way that is different from the way Lee Elder, the first black person to compete for the Masters, didn’t belong, or the way Vijay Singh, another dark-skinned golfer to win the Masters, didn’t belong. For Tiger is, by many measures, the best golfer ever to play the game and has become the symbol for golf itself (thanks in large part to an early Nike ad campaign). When we, the public, look upon the face of Tiger Woods, we are looking upon the face of golf itself.

It is this very face—in all of its non-whiteness—that threatens Augusta National.

Moreover, perhaps what is most confounding, and therefore threatening, about Tiger Woods is the fact that he is not clearly non-white: he is confusingly non-white. Indeed, when the world was first getting to know him, people seemed to struggle with this fact. No one knew where to slot him. Tiger’s presence in the golfing world confused everyone’s categories vis-à-vis the race question. Was he black? And if so, was he “black enough”? What, the public wondered, was he, exactly? (Tiger himself answered the race question at one point by calling himself “Cablinasian”—Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian—thereby affirming his ambiguity.)

So, not only did Tiger dare to approach a clearly delineated group and threaten to redefine the parameters of its membership by virtue of his confusing non-whiteness, he had the audacity to come in and be better than anybody else. Because of his obvious skill, then, Augusta National had to let him in (thereby blurring its own membership categories—its nice, clear, safe lines of demarcation). And what’s more, the old guard had to at least kind of pretend to be happy about it, because Tiger was just that good.

And if all of this weren’t enough, Tiger had to then go and violate the script even more: He had the temerity to sleep with, and then marry, a white woman.

Tiger Woods’ very presence in the world of Augusta National has disordered it, and on a subtextual level, has made messy an entire world that, for many, was once clean, clear-cut, and safe. Everyone knew his or her role—knew his or her place—until Tiger came along.

With Woods’ threatening entrance into the world of Augusta National (and into the marital bed of a white woman, no less), the solid plaster that had once held up the secure world structure of the Old South—a structure that had already been threatened and was disappearing—was further cracked. The secure reinforcements of the in-between spaces—the boundaries separating who was in and who was out—became even more porous.

What, then, is the subtext of Tiger woods, vis-à-vis the Masters? The once-secure structure of the Old South is again being shaken; the very foundations are trembling.

The Masters is, clearly, an event steeped in ritual gestures (all the way down to the bestowal of the green jacket at the end), and a great opportunity for those who were once the secure builders and owners of the house of power to reassert whose house it is and to shore up the walls. Tiger Woods’ socially-proscribed moral transgressions against his wife, then, provided the prior owners of the house (those who owned it before Tiger came in and blurred all the clear deeds of ownership) a perfect opportunity to reassert, within the context of the Masters Tournament Ritual, who should be in, and who should be out.

Those who had perhaps wanted to weren’t able keep Tiger out of the world of Augusta National before, because he was just too good and too valuable. But now that the mighty Tiger has fallen, they can try to keep him weak—to put him back in his place—by other means. One thing they can do is kick him, literally, back out the house: when Tiger asked to stay in one of the cabins on the grounds of Augusta National, his request was denied.

The fact that Tiger was not allowed to stay in one of the cabins (whatever the reasons for this might have been), of course, brings us back to Payne’s comments about Woods’ pollution of “our children’s” minds and dreams. Douglas describes the ways in which those who have threatened a social structure are, once publically punished and shamed, often thought to be polluting to all “good” people; it’s almost as if they now need to be avoided, lest they taint others by their very presence.

As if he were trying to affirm Douglas’ theory, Payne asserted that Tiger’s very presence at the Masters served as a threat to “our children.” The children might “catch” Tiger’s badness—his cooties, if you will—by virtue of his very proximity. So, whatever the reasons for barring Tiger from Augusta National’s cabins, one cannot help but wonder whether those planning the housing arrangements for this year’s Masters reasoned that they simply couldn’t have Tiger staying on the grounds. Or, to paraphrase Charles Barkley, they could let Tiger come and play, but at least he wouldn’t be staying on the plantation.

Another thing the prior owners of the house could do to try to keep Tiger weak is to violate the liturgical progression of the Great Public Ritual of Celebrity Disgrace by heaping public shame on Tiger during his Period of Tentative Return. By delaying their censure of Tiger until well after the Period of Public Shaming, the keepers of the house separate themselves temporally from the censorious voices of the masses, and thus elevate themselves above the “commonness” of these voices.

At the same time, by willfully ignoring the Great Public Ritual, the keepers of the house both desecrate the “sanctity” of this common ritual, and simultaneously assert their own sense of sacred time, their own Private Ritual of the Restoration of Order. In this latter ritual, Tiger must be identified as different and dangerous. Tiger’s redemption be damned, this boy needs to be put in his place (i.e., Joe Wilson: the sequel).

Which brings us back to where we started: the headline in the Toronto Star which read, “Augusta Chairman comes out swinging at Tiger Woods”—and, yes, that was rich.

But in the end, should we have expected anything less?

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