While I’m sure most people would be happy to have heard the last of the Kelly Tilghman Affair, after mulling the situation over for several weeks I’ve decided I would be remiss not to give it the once over in The Sand Trap‘s op/ed space. Let’s face it, January is a slow news month in golf (Tiger romps at Torrey Pines… why am I not surprised?), and this is a political issue in an election year (here in the U.S., anyway). Pass up reading this and just visit the forum if you will, but if you read on I can promise to give you a thing or two to chew on.
To briefly review, Golf Channel‘s team of Kelly Tilghman and Nick Faldo were engaged in some light-hearted repartee on the subject of Tiger’s dominance of professional golf. Faldo asked rhetorically what other players might do to possibly compete with golf’s version of a Superhero, said “gang up on him for awhile.” In the joking vein of their exchange, Tilghman suggested that other top players “lynch him in a back alley.” The racist overtones of this comment were too much for Golf Channel executives, who suspended Tilghman for two weeks, after which the anchor issued a public apology and resumed her duties as lead anchor.
Upon reflection, I think the person who impressed me the most in all of this is Tiger himself, and more by what he didn’t say than what he did. Although some people criticize him for steering clear of controversy or refusing to take a stand on contentious issues, his stance on this sort of things is, like his golf stance, balanced, powerful, and just about perfect. He acknowledged Tilghman’s comment so as to both gently condemn the error in judgement, while not in any way drawing attention to himself or otherwise inflaming the situation any further. Smooth as one of his dead hand pitches. (As an aside, there is also the issue of labeling Tiger as an African American. He is of mixed racial background, and I sometimes wonder if he resents being “used” in matters such as this as a racial symbol that might not match his self-image…yet another reason to admire the dignity of his reaction.)
My own reaction, the initial, gut one, was more emotional. “Here we go again,” I thought, “now we have to listen to worn out “racism” rants for the next six months.” Not to sound bigoted or insensitive, but sometimes it seems to me that “concerned” political figures and erudite-sounding newspeople hover over the media landscape like buzzards, waiting to feast on something like this. And the rest of us end up being force fed the scavenged meal.
I don’t for a minute condone what Tilghman said, nor do I mean to trivialize it. Maybe her use of “lynching” was in the generic sense, and not in a racially-charged tone. I will admit that I had to think for a moment before the historical connotations of the term “lynching” came to mind. Maybe she was caught up in the moment, thinking more about the banter and repartee with Faldo, and simply chose her words incorrectly. But her intention, or any momentary lack of judgement, however innocent, really doesn’t matter. Once she opened her mouth, the damage was done. You can’t put the manure back in the horse.
For me, this matter was a fairly substantial screw up for Tilghman on two counts: first, as a matter of etiquette, and second, as an issue of professionalism. I don’t think any fair analysis of the situation, or of Tilghman herself, would conclude that she is a racist or intended racial overtones in her remarks. But etiquette, matters of civility, things you just do because they are right and considerate of others, these are things that seem to be vanishing from our society’s repertoire of common, expected behavior. In this sense, I see Tilghman’s comments as analagous to Natalie Gulbis’s posing for a photgraph sitting on an American flag after winning last year’s Evian Masters. Yeah, she didn’t mean to be unpatriotic, but whether you mean it or not, sitting on the flag is just wrong. No harm? Perhaps, or at least not too much. No foul? Uh uh.
It is as a professional, however, that I believe Tilghman really shanked one here. Of all the words she could have used, of all the directions she could have taken the discussion, to end up on “lynching” seems ridiculous for a professional broadcaster. Words count for all of us, but if your business, your livelihood, your profession is the act of speaking, doesn’t an error like this seem even more egregious? Yeah, we all make mistakes, but one like this, at the heart of your mission as a professional, it tough to swallow. If I were Tilghman, I think it would be this aspect of the whole thing that would keep me awake at night more than anything else.
In the end, I think the issue was handled correctly. The network had to acknowledge what happened, and take some sort of appropriate,measured action. By suspending Tilghman but not firing her, they struck the proper balance between respect for any offended listeners, common sense, and a spirit of forgiveness to a hard-working young professional.
Judging by the results at Torrey Pines, Tiger has certainly, uh, moved on. Let’s hope the rest of the golf world follows suit.