The Masters is over, but the most recent controversy surrounding Tiger Woods is not. This one has to do with a stark black-and-white Nike ad, in which the voice of Woods’ deceased father Earl demands to know of his son whether he’s learned anything lately. The commercial ends with Woods, somber-faced and saying nothing, still squarely centered on the viewer’s TV screen.
Although the ad’s been called weird and creepy, it’s also been described as one more from Nike that does what good ads should, gain attention and create a buzz. Either way, it provokes questions.
The first has to do with exploiting a dead father’s voice to help shore up a son’s shaken reputation and lucrative contract with Nike. Is this OK? On one hand, nobody made a fuss when Natalie Cole sang duets with her long-gone father. That, too, had to do with a child’s career being enhanced or promoted by using a dead parent’s voice. On the other hand something tells us a mute Tiger being admonished by his recently deceased dad in a TV ad just isn’t the same thing.
Now listen to this:
“I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
“Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lesson. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”
Now Clay swings with a right
What a beautiful swing
And the punch raises the bear
Clear out of the ring
Liston’s still rising
And the ref wears a frown
For he can’t start counting
Till Sonny comes down”
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people use it when they speak to me and of me.”
Not since Muhammad Ali has an American athlete been a world figure instead of just one more national celebrity. Until Tiger Woods. That’s why it makes sense to think about them together. Both are physically beautiful, both “black,” although not very in terms of graphic reality; and both are astonishing athletes. One comes from nowhere onto the world stage. The other comes from the middle class, and, until he drops out, Stanford University.
It takes courage to say what’s on your mind. Can anyone remember anything Tiger Woods has ever said? What’s far more likely is that we’ll remember his father—his master’s voice—addressing from the grave a mute, managed, handled, coached and prompted son.
The politicians, actors and athletes we not only admire but come to love are the ones whose impact extends beyond technical mastery. This has applied all along, from Odysseus to Martin Luther King up to the present day. We are grateful to such people, love them and make them into heroes because they give us something to take away besides instant replays.
But unlike Muhammad Ali or Yogi Berra to name just two, it doesn’t seem likely we’ll ever get from Woods what all true heroes give us: both the genius of the body, and striking, ultimately unforgettable words that live well beyond careers or lives. He might have been able to do it, but probably won’t. Tiger Woods is just too valuable a “brand,” a commodity. And he doesn’t seem to have the courage to speak for himself.
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