Tiger Woods went to the White House last week to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump. As is the case whenever a notable celebrity willingly enters the orbit of our white supremacist president, this raised plenty of questions about Woods’s political leanings. Does he agree with Donald Trump’s policies? Does he like him personally? Does he not care either way?
Sports Illustrated’s Mike Rosenberg doesn’t believe these questions are even fair to ask. In a column published yesterday he argues that Tiger Woods, despite choosing to stand in front of the world and smile as Trump put a medal around his neck, is “sticking to sports.” He writes:
Woods represents a different kind of public figure. He has no interest in public political stances. He never has. This may be partly a business decision, but it is also a personal preference: Woods just doesn’t spout that many public opinions about anything. He was asked Tuesday if he would ever have his own TV show, like LeBron James’ The Shop on HBO, and he cut off the question: “No. No. No. No show. No.” He has a warm relationship with Trump that preceded the presidency.
You may wish he said more, and you may wish that the “more” was exactly in line with your own political views. You are, of course, well within your rights to want that.
The mistake with Woods—and with a lot of athletes—is assuming he is making political statements when he isn’t.
Rosenberg seems to be going through life with a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word “political” means. Choosing to accept an invitation to the White House from Donald Trump is by definition a political statement. It says that Woods either doesn’t have any problem with the Trump administration’s policies, or that his distaste for them isn’t strong enough to forgo receiving a prestigious award from that administration. What clearer way is there to express one’s politics?
It’s not as if Woods’s visit to the White House happened in a vacuum, either. As Rosenberg eventually acknowledges, Woods has stated that he and Trump have known each other for a number of years, and have played golf and enjoyed meals together. Woods and Trump have also had multiple business relationships over the years, the latest involving Woods designing the golf course for one of Trump’s properties in Dubai. Woods didn’t walk into the White House last week as some doe-eyed, apolitical kid entering unfamiliar territory. He went there to be honored by his friend and business partner, who also happens to the President of the United States.
If Woods wants to be able to do this without receiving any blowback or criticism, then he is asking for the same thing that Tom Brady and other famous friends of Trump have asked for: insulation. They want to be able to maintain their personal relationships with Donald Trump without having to answer for any of the things Trump does or says as president. Everyone has had friends with whom they don’t entirely agree with when it comes to politics, but when one of those friends ascends to the most powerful political office in the world and starts chuckling at the thought of shooting immigrants, any further association with him becomes a political statement. Those are the rules.
It’s unfortunate that knobs like Rosenberg are all too eager to provide Woods with this insulation. That, too, is an expression of politics. It asserts that a person like Tiger Woods should be afforded the luxury of removing himself from the political conversation entirely, to a place where his only concern is his self-gratification. To Rosenberg, that’s not a cop-out, but an expression of virtue. It’s sticking to sports.