Friday, January 18, 2008

Freedom of Speech doesn't get you a free pass

Responsibility. Liberty sets us free from the shackles of governmental control but that freedom is far from being free. The price we pay is responsibility. Failure to accept responsibility can be costly. Recently we saw yet another example of somebody in the media behaving irresponsibly. And while Kelly Tilghman has been held accountable for making racially insensitive remarks regarding Tiger Woods' dominance in golf, nobody seems willing to hold her responsible. Apparently she's the victim of this horrible PC movement. The funny thing is that the story was all about Tiger Woods even though the comments weren't. She didn't say anything disparaging about Tiger. What she did was actually worse.

I don’t know Tiger Woods so I can’t tell you whether or not he was simply taking the high road when he dismissed Kelly Tilghman’s stupid comment about young golfers needing to “lynch” Tiger in some dark alley if they wanted to succeed in golf. Maybe he really doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. As a golfer the remarks are actually flattering but as an African American they're offensive.

Of course there’s a chance that Tiger finds those remarks more than a little offensive. There’s a distinct possibility that Tiger would love to see Kelly Tilghman fired. The problem is that Tiger Woods is not just a golfer he’s a brand and an icon. Tiger has more important things on his mind. So when some idiot pops off with an off color comment he just pulls his hat down and focuses on his game.

That’s why he wins. Tiger rarely says anything. He maintains a professional distance and that's why so many people dislike him but they have to respect him. And that's what counts. By the time he's finished every other golfer in the history of the game will be a footnote. Tiger has already gone where no other golfer has gone before. He is one of the richest and most famous people in the world and he's done it without pandering to the public or branching into other businesses. Instead, he has taken over golf. Every golfer on the PGA tour has seen their earnings increase since Tiger has joined the PGA Tour. Tiger's presence at an event increases sponsorships and attendance. He might be the single most important athlete in the world. Tiger doesn't have time to worry about anything else. So when somebody throws his name into an inflammatory comment he ignores it.

Fuzzy Zoeller got a pass from Tiger Woods when he trotted out some tired old joke about fried chicken and watermelon. Like Tilghman, Zoeller claimed he was a friend of Tiger’s and didn’t mean any harm. Tiger didn’t deny a friendship but actions speak louder than words. While Fuzzy was making the rounds trying to salvage his image, Tiger kept his mouth shut and played golf. Tiger and Fuzzy aren’t exactly BFFs and you probably won't see Kelly Tilghman over Tiger's house for dinner. In fact, Tiger released his statement through his agent. The personal touch speaks volumes. Tiger let's his enemies dig their own holes.

Tiger would probably love to see this all blow over. He's got his sites set on another season and wants to crush the latest crop of pretenders who think they can challenege him. Rumor has it Phil Mickelson is healthy and ready to win a couple of majors. Tiger would like nothing more than to humilate him on Sunday. This Tilghman issue is the last thing Tiger needs.

Thanks to Al Shaprton and a shameless cover onGolf Weekly magazine the issue is refusing to go away. Malign Al Sharpton all you like but he made a great point: if somebody had made a similar comment about gassing a Jewish sports figure there would be an international fuss. Kelly Tilghman is getting a bit of a pass partly because nobody watches the Golf Chanel and partly because she’s a sexy white chick.

Some people have gone so far as to ask why the term “lynch” is so offensive. It’s not. The context in which Tilghman used it was. The word “gas” isn’t offensive either. And while it’s true that white people were lynched there is no denying the fact that far too many African Americans were hanged in this crude manner with staggering just forty years ago. It might not have been what you would call common practice but it happened often enough to make “lynch” a pretty inflammatory word. Genocide isn't funny.

And there’s little doubt in my mind that Tilghman did not mean to imply anything malicious. She might be friends with Tiger and in a closed conversation amongst mutual friends far more offensive things might be uttered in jest. Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock make very comfortable livings crafting jokes out of much more offensive commentary. The problem is that Tilghman wasn’t in familiar company and she doesn’t get paid to make jokes. In fact, she gets paid to offer insightful commentary on golf. Jokes aren't in her job description.

Should Tilghman be fired? I think so. It’s not that her remarks are that offensive but when she assumed a position in front of a camera she accepted certain responsibilities and one of them is to have her brain engaged before she runs her mouth. Sports broadcasters have been canned for similar offenses. For me it’s not even a PC issue, it’s about professionalism. People get fired for screwing up at work all the time. Little mistakes are one thing but failing at your core responsibilities is another. We have far too many washed up jocks passing themselves off as experts. Tilghman seems to fit in that category.

The real problem I have is the context of her comment. Not the racially insensitive aspect of it, but the shameless ploy at trying to be funny. I know she was joking but she was trying to rehash a joke Nick Faldo made about younger golfers ganging up on Tiger Woods to take him on. She interjected “lynch him in a back alley”. Is she a golf bimbo? It just seems liek she was reaching for an opportunity to showcase wit that simply isn't there. Clearly Kelly was hired because she has many of the same attributes your local weather girl has. If she’s allowed to return to her position, Tilghman will likely be reminded that short skirts and form-fitting tops are what she is supposed to bring to each broadcast. Other than that, stick with the script and nod when you're lost.

It doesn’t matter whether Tiger took umbrage or not. Tilghman didn’t direct her comment to Tiger, it was made about him. It’s not a personal issue. The thing that troubles me is that we all know this. When you put something out there for the world to hear the world gets to pass judgment. Everybody stands to pay a price for putting a foot in his mouth but that price isn’t consistent. If you make a living in front of a camera chances are you simply can’t afford it.

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