Two golfers stood on a driving range in West Palm Beach, Fla., last month, one admiring the other's perfect shots, when suddenly Tiger Woods turned and handed Kelly Tilghman his driver. Sans warm-up, she laced a ball 225 yards, straight, and handed it back.
It was a Nike product launch, emceed by the Golf Channel's Tilghman, and it was all very scripted. A snazzy video clip to start things off; Tilghman teeing up the Nike golf bigwigs; Tilghman introducing Tiger, who stepped up to the dais and then kept his microphone on as he went on to beat balls in the Florida sun.
But now everything has gone way off-script, and Al Sharpton has taken an interest in golf. In the final minutes of Golf Channel's coverage of the Mercedes Championship last Friday, analyst Nick Faldo joked that the young players of the PGA Tour may have to gang up on Tiger Woods, and co-anchor Tilghman agreed, suggesting with a laugh that Tiger's young rivals, "Lynch him in a back alley."
It was an early candidate for brain cramp of the year, and you can bet the anchor has rifled through the thesaurus in her head for all the things she could have said instead, like "Beat him up in a back alley" or "Break his thumbs in a back alley." But out popped the "L" word. Maybe her guard was down because the PGA Tour is so white. Broadcasters for other sports have finely tuned political correctness sensors, but those sensors can become dulled by inactivity at the Golf Channel, where most of the athletes were raised on country club fairways instead of inner-city streets. Or maybe, because Woods is more vocal about children's causes than civil rights, she simply forgot she was referring to the son of a black man and a Thai woman.
It was the kind of thing you might say if you wanted to get fired quickly, the kind of thing that sounds bad but looks worse in print. Tilghman apologized on air and directly to Woods, a friend of 12 years, who took no offense, according to comments to the press made by his agent, Mark Steinberg.
That might have been the end of it, but a loaded word like "lynch" doesn't easily drop out of the 24-hour news cycle. Along came Sharpton on CNN, demanding that Tilghman be fired, asking to meet with Golf Channel brass, doing exactly what you'd expect him to do. (Golf Channel announced Wednesday that it would suspend Tilghman for two weeks.) Some fans rolled their eyes. Woods had already forgiven Tilghman; couldn't Reverend Al?
But his involvement brings up an interesting point: Why is Woods the only arbiter here? He hasn't exactly been a paragon of political correctness himself, having been quoted telling racial and lesbian jokes in GQ magazine in 1997. (He later claimed the jokes were off the record; writer Charles Pierce disagreed.)
Something still feels wrong here. Golf Channel's punishment of its anchor ought to reflect the feelings of its viewers and of sports fans everywhere more than what Tiger thinks. That's the way it works in television — the audience is the thing. Howard Cosell once yelped on Monday Night Football, "Look at that little monkey run!" Few recall the identity of the player, much less that player's opinion of Cosell's idiotic remark. The player's opinion mattered, but only sort of. The comment was offensive to viewers, and that was that. It followed Cosell to his grave by way of his obit in The New York Times.
People parsed the word "monkey" for a while, and so it is now with "lynch." In Tilghman's defense, Merriam-Webster defines it as, "to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal sanction." It does not define it as, "to put to death a black man (as by hanging) by mob action without legal sanction."
But come on. We don't live in a vacuum. This is America, and that word has a history here, and the Golf Channel's viewers aren't all as white as the PGA Tour. "Lynching is not murder in general, it's not assault in general," Sharpton said. "It's a specific racial term that this woman should be held accountable for. What she said is racist. Whether she's a racist … is immaterial. She's a broadcaster. The channel has to be accountable to the public."
Tilghman shouldn't be fired, but two weeks feels more like a vacation. A month or two would remind us all to check every word, even in a medium as fleeting as television, even when it seems no one is watching and the only thing anyone wants to kill is time.