Tiger Woods and Social Studies

Here’s what I, as a Social Studies educator, find completely unacceptable from Tiger Woods:

Woods weighs in on Augusta membership
GolfWeb Wire Services — July 16, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland — Tiger Woods was vague, his answers repetitive. For the first time at a major championship, he seemed unprepared and uncomfortable when handling a topic that was bound to come up at Muirfield.

His pursuit of the Grand Slam? Nope.

What he thinks about Augusta National not having any women as members — and the fact the British Open is held at a course where women aren’t even allowed in the clubhouse.

“It’s one of those things where everyone has … they’re entitled to set up their own rules the way they want them,” Woods said Tuesday. “It would be nice to see everyone have an equal chance to participate if they wanted to, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Woods said he would feel the same way if such golf clubs had no blacks or Asians.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “But it’s just the way it is.”

Others have raised criticisms from various angles: Eugene Robinson et al. (right), Keith Olbermann  (left). and Dave Zirin, interviewed by Rachel Maddow (play video here, read transcript below).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

(Excerpt transcribed below begins after the first 1 minute of the video.)

The Rachel Maddow Show November 30, 2009

MADDOW: According to “The Nation‘s” sportswriter and my buddy, Dave Zirin, it is good that questions are finally being asked about Tiger Woods. But yes, according to Dave, at least, these are all the wrong questions.

Joining us now, Dave Zirin, sportswriter for “The Nation” and author of the book, “A People‘s History of Sports in the United States.”

Dave, thank you for coming on the show. . . .

MADDOW: What do you think are the questions that we ought to be asking about Tiger Woods, the public figure?

ZIRIN: Well, let‘s start with another word that‘s in the news today, and that‘s Dubai. Dubai has defaulted on its billions of dollars in loan in an effort to turn itself into a multibillion-dollar vacation paradise for the Middle East and beyond.

The center of Dubai‘s tourist industry is a place called Dubailand. And at the center of Dubailand is the Tiger Woods golf course and resort, which includes 22 palaces and 100 villas and cost $100 million. All of Dubailand, $68 billion.

Now, that all sounds good and Dubailand has been called Disneyland for adults. It‘s also ground zero of the international illegal sex trade. It‘s also ground zero of some of the worst labor violations this side of Saipan.

And people begged Tiger Woods to say something about the labor practices or the sex trade in Dubai. And it doesn‘t sound that would be that controversial. It‘s like being against swine flu or saying up with puppies. You know, it doesn‘t sound like that big a deal.

But Tiger Woods refused to say a word about it. That‘s been his M.O., and the media absolutely let him skate on it. So for those of us who try to be critical of how athletes use their fame and use their incredible cultural capital, it boggles my mind that there is a 24-hour stakeout on Tiger Woods and it‘s for something that frankly makes me want to shower with steel wool.

MADDOW: Well, so much of the way that it has been justified to spend this much time covering Tiger Woods is the question of his business dealings about whether or not this is going to affect his billion-dollar brand.

But you‘re saying that there are political questions that he should be asked to answer for, because he is a billion-dollar brand and he sort of floated above scrutiny on all of those.

ZIRIN: Well, absolutely. And very few people challenged Tiger on this and it has to do with power. You mentioned him being a billion-dollar brand. When it comes to sports earnings, that number is about $92 million. That‘s what he‘s made through golf.

When it comes to public relations, his image as a Spartan master, Sun Tzu ninja of focus, that‘s over $900 million that he has earned by perpetuating this image. The questions are legitimate in regard of the business, of Tiger Woods, Inc.

But what really sort of like grinds my gears about all of this is that Tiger Woods deserves to be challenged for not taking a political stance. And I absolutely respect athlete‘s rights not to take stance. I‘m not saying every athlete has to be Muhammad Ali.

But Tiger Woods is someone who has always marketed himself as part of the iconography of the Civil Rights Movement. Remember his Nike commercial where all the kids say, “I am Tiger Woods. I am Tiger Woods.” All the colors of the Benetton rainbow.

That came from Spike Lee‘s movie, “Malcolm X” where all the kids say, “I am Malcolm X. I am Malcolm X.” That came from a Black Panther film about Fred Hampton, “I am Fred Hampton. I am Fred Hampton,” after he was assassinated in the late ‘60s. And that came from, of course, “I am Spartacus.”

I mean, you‘re talking about some of the most deep-felt quotes of solidarity. And they‘re used to sell us Nike products.

Dave Zirin, sportswriter for “The Nation,” the man who connects weirder dots than anybody else in the country, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It‘s always a pleasure.

ZIRIN: My privilege, Rachel.

My stance on most of these issues is much like that of M.J. Rosenberg, writing at the TPMCAFÉ:

My favorite columnist, Frank Rich thinks that Tiger Woods, more than anyone, is the real person of the year. …

I don’t buy it.

Tiger Woods didn’t kill anybody. He didn’t take anyone’s house. He didn’t cost us millions of jobs.

He’s just an overgrown adolescent. who, in my untutored opinion, is a victim of child abuse.

Robbing a kid of childhood in exchange for a billion dollars is still abuse.

It’s way too easy to make him a symbol of the repulsive selfishness and barbarism that has marked both our domestic and foreign policy for decades — culminating in the Bush/Cheney administration and their bipatrisan enablers. But he’s not. No more than Rudolph Valentino — every bit as big a star as Tiger — is a symbol of the laissez-faire 1920’s that produced the Great Depression.

As for the “overgrown adolescent” comment: What Eugene Robinson notes as Tiger’s seeming obsession with “Barbie” types is reminiscent of the sophistication with which eighth-grade boys appreciate members of the other sex — which strikes me as a matter for pity, more than blame. Like Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods never went through that time of life for growing through the engagements with reality that most boys encounter.

As for declining to identify racially as African-American, I can see that there are arguments that might be made; but they’re not my arguments to make.

As for Keith Olbermann’s “sad story of [Woods] being a common weasel,” and having been “a holier than thou fraud for a decade,” I wouldn’t argue against that; but, like Rosenberg, I would not single out Woods on that account for my attention.

Zirin argues that

But what really sort of like grinds my gears about all of this is that Tiger Woods deserves to be challenged for not taking a political stance. And I absolutely respect athlete‘s rights not to take stance. I‘m not saying every athlete has to be Muhammad Ali.

But Tiger Woods is someone who has always marketed himself as part of the iconography of the Civil Rights Movement. …

Again, I don’t disagree with that; but that’s not what most severely “grinds my gears,” as a Social Studies educator.

What I find most particularly unacceptable from Tiger Woods, in his response to questions about women’s access to Augusta National and other golfing venues, is not really that he chooses not to take a stance against discrimination, or even that he is duplicitous in posing as an icon of diversity and equality while declining such a stance. What’s truly unacceptable is not his choice to passively accept the status quo, but his lame pretense that he has no choice — that there’s simply nothing he could do about it no matter how much he wanted to:

“It’s one of those things where everyone has … they’re entitled to set up their own rules the way they want them,” Woods said Tuesday. “It would be nice to see everyone have an equal chance to participate if they wanted to, but there’s nothing you can do about it.” …

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “But it’s just the way it is.”

When he said that, Woods certainly knew that it was not at all the truth. If Woods announced that he would not play in the Masters Tournament so long as it was being held at any venue that refused to admit women, no one could doubt that his stance would have been decisively consequential. Even if no other golfers were to follow his lead, his lack of participation would have predictably cost the PGA, its sponsors, the broadcasting network, and even the other golfers (in their prize winnings) as much as half their revenue. With such impending consequences for their sport and for their personal fortunes, if not for the moral leadership, other PGA golfers would certainly have followed Tiger’s lead. The Augusta National Golf Club would have had to face up to a decision. Tiger could not have known for sure whether they would decide to change their policy or stick with their tradition; but there can be no doubt that, in this scenario, if Augusta National refused to change, the PGA and the Masters Tournament would have been forced by Tiger and those following his lead to find a different venue for their tournament.

In Texas, where the State Board of Education is in the middle of developing revised standards for Social Studies, SBOE chair Gail Lowe has said in an interview that  persons such as Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall don’t deserve the places that they’ve had in the Social Studies curriculu:

Marshall and Chavez are “not particularly known for their citizenship,” Lowe said. “Figures we use to represent those character ideals (citizenship, patriotism and community involvement) and the type of persons we want your students to emulate should be politically neutral.”

For Lowe and others who might think that the purpose of Social Studies in the schools is to neutralize children politically, Tiger Woods might be a perfect example of “the type of persons we want your students to emulate.”

But whatever Lowe and her faction might want for Texas children, the purpose of real Social Studies education is really not to neuter them. There may be questions about whether and in what ways it may or may not be proper for Social Studies curriculum to pursue the objectives of instilling students with the dispositions needed for participation as effective activist citizens in a democracy. Without taking a stance on those questions, I think all Social Studies educators should agree that we should at least be aiming for our students to achieve the social understanding and the social competence they need so that they can be aware of the possibilities for social engagement, so that if they choose not to be engaged, it’s not because they’re ignorant of things that can be done, and how people can do things to make a difference.

It is in that connection that I have been featuring the Tiger Woods’ excuses (“there’s nothing you can do about it” and “It’s unfortunate … But it’s just the way it is”) since they first appeared in 2002, in my course on Social Studies curriculum for undergraduate future elementary school teachers. The book fits naturally with issues raised for primary school curriculum in Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, You can’t say you can’t play (thanks to Walter Parker of the U. of Washington for bringing this book to my attention, many years ago).

In this book, Mrs. Paley tells the story of how one year her kindergarten class worked out a decision on whether there should be a rule, in their classroom, that “You can’t say ‘you can’t play’.” Should some members of the class be allowed to exclude others during unstructured play time in the classroom? Would a new rule against exclusion be fair? Would it work? How would it work? Mrs. Paley’s class engaged in weeks of storytelling, play-acting, and other age-appropriate modes of deliberation to help decide whether this should be a rule in their classroom.

I ask the college students why they think I have them read this book. Isn’t this really a book about classroom management and discipline? What’s it doing in my class — in a course on Social Studies curriculum?

The undergraduate, pre-service future elementary-school teachers in my class are quick to recognize that Social Studies is not only about the content of academic subjects such as history, geography, civics, and economics (the four subjects that comprise the official standards for Social Studies in the State of Delaware); it’s also — especially at the primary school level — about learning how to get along and work with others in social groups and communities. And the story of what happened in Mrs. Paley’s kindergarten class is certainly a good example of the possibilities for this kind of Social Studies learning.

But my purpose for using this book goes beyond that kind of Social Studies learning. For one thing, I want these future teachers to recognize how much Ms. Paley’s students learned about core basic Social Studies concepts — the kind of thing that state Social Studies standards purport to be about. Robust discussion among these kindergarten students raised questions such as these, for example:

  • What is fair, in this case — what is justice — and who should decide / how should it be decided what will / will not be allowed?
  • What if there’s one student who started the play activity, so that they’re the leader (children used words like “boss” and “owner”) — shouldn’t the game’s owner or boss get to make the rules, and decide who can and cannot play?
  • A comment from one of these kindergarten children suggested that they might want to find out what the big kids in their school’s higher grades (1-5) would think about this rule; so the older kids were brought into the discussion, sometimes coming back to Mrs. Paley later to share their further thinking on the matter. At one point, a conversation with fourth-graders culminated in this advice to Mrs. Paley:

There are nods of agreement around the rug. “Yeah, start it in kindergarten,” someone says. “Because they’ll believe you that it’s a rule. You know, a law.” (p. 63)

These fourth-graders were expressing a profound misunderstanding of the nature of rules, and of law. They were thinking of a “law” as a kind of “rule” that has always been in place, just as it is, from before the very start. That’s something that they’d have to believe about a rule before they could believe that it is really “a rule. You know, a law.”

Core concepts in Social Studies include recognition that laws are made by people — all the people, in a real democracy, or just the powerful people, in other forms of government — and that laws and rules are made and changed by people to serve their purposes and interests.

And this applies to what it means for somebody to be a “boss,” or be an “owner.”

I ask my college students, “When somebody is the boss in a workplace situation, does that mean they have power to do — and order other people to do — whatever they want, and that everybody they’re the boss over has to obey?” The answers are not immediate from everybody, but pretty quickly everyone acknowledges that there are limitations on a boss’s power to command. But what are the limits? How are the lines drawn between what bosses can and cannot demand? How are these limitations enforced? And have the rules about the powers of bosses always been the same? What kinds of changes have there been? Who made these changes? And how were these changes brought about?

These are questions that many of my students have never really thought about; but collectively there is enough life experience in the room, and enough learning of history, that our class discussion is able to come up with some good answers.

And what about “owners”? If somebody owns a home, or a business, does that mean they can make whatever decisions they want to about their own property? Is the answer the same for both homes and businesses? What is “property” anyway, and what does it mean to be the owner of some “property”? And what does “private property” mean … and does it matter if we’re talking about “private” or “public” property (a question easily applicable to the games played in free play time, but in the kindergarten classroom)?

And, again, have the rules about the powers of properties owners (and hence, the meaning of “ownership,” and “property”) always been the same? What kinds of changes have there been? Who made these changes? And how were these changes brought about?

Before too long, my college students make connections with the Civil Rights Laws of the 1960’s, and with the restaurant sit-ins and other demonstrations that led to changes in the laws, and to the Civil Rights Movement that produced those demonstrations. My students are generally hazy about the specifics, such as the “Public Accommodations” provisions (these are not future social studies teacher specialists, but future elementary school teachers teaching all the subjects in the early grades); but situated in the context of Mrs. Paley’s classroom and the Masters golf tournament controversy, they are set to appreciate the significance and broader relevance of those Civil Rights provisions.

Even young children can understand core civics concepts (like fairness, justice, rules, laws, etc.) and historical developments (like legislation, activism, and social movements bringing about change) in connection with what’s happening in their own classroom that instantiates these broader concepts.

Such connections between the “big ideas” in social studies and the instances that children know about more intimately in their daily lives are standard fare in social studies pedagogy, and it’s something that we social studies teacher-educators try to help our students learn to recognize and utilize.

But, although that may be a valuable strategy for helping students learn important social studies concepts, the more important point here — in relation to the Tiger Woods problem — involves the PURPOSES of Social Studies, which are not limited to learning concepts such as “justice,” “law,” and “property,” and factual information such as the history of civil rights legislation.

The purposes of Social Studies include preparing students with the competence they need for informed and effective membership in society. This competence includes knowledge of history, geography, economics, and government, but it includes more than just a knowledge of the relevant academic disciplines. As Krug observed in commenting on Bruner’s “structure of the disciplines” approach applied to history:

Bruner and his associates are constantly emphasizing the importance of the child “doing” mathematics or physics instead of learning about them. The student should “do” the things on the blackboards or in the laboratory that mathematicians and physicists are doing. That sounds reasonable and exciting. But how does this apply to history? Christopher Jencks, in his review of Bruner’s book, Toward a Theory of Instruction, made an acute observation. “The analogy,” he wrote, “between physics and history is at bottom misleading. The men who really ‘do’ history are not, after all, historians. They are politicians, generals, diplomats, philosophers. It is these people whom the young need to understand, far more than they need to understand the historians who judge them.” (Krug, 1966, p. 404; cf. 1967, p. 122)

While students need to know the concepts of “property” and “public accommodations,” and the historical facts about the civil rights movement, they first and foremost need to understand that people do have power to make a difference in this world. If we accept the Tiger Woods excuse that there’s just nothing even he could do about his situation, then how could we imagine that there’s anything that we can do about the situations that we see around us?

Again, the essential point — for Social Studies — is not to say what Tiger Woods should do (although some would argue about that), but to insist that all citizens must be prepared to recognize what they are capable of doing, if they choose to do it. The purpose is to equip them with the capabilities, which requires awareness of the capabilities.

This is Social Studies with the purpose of enabling our young citizens — not disabling them, as in Gail Lowe’s ideal of neutralizing or neutering Texas students, politically.

So that’s why I see Tiger’s lame excuse for passively going along with his (and his profession’s) business as usual — not his choice to do so, nor any of other things that people are now faulting him for — as the one thing that I find most egregiously unacceptable from him, from my vantage point in Curriculum and Social Studies.


  • Krug, M. M. (1966). Bruner’s new social studies: A critique. Social Education, 30(6), 400-406.
  • Krug, M. M. (1967). History and the social sciences; new approaches to the teaching of social studies. Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell.

How to cite this post (1 for APA style [6th]; 2 for Chicago style A [15th]):

  1. Whitson, J. A. (2010, January 7). Tiger Woods, Rush Limbaugh, and Social Studies [Web log article]. Retrieved from https://curricublog.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/tiger-woods-social-studies/
  2. Whitson, James Anthony. “Tiger Woods, Rush Limbaugh, and Social Studies.” (2010), https://curricublog.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/tiger-woods-social-studies/ (accessed Month date, 20xx).

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