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Thursday, January 10, 2008
Rebuking Excuses to Lynching Tiger Woods Jokes
The Golf Channel reporter Kelly Tilghman stated the only hope young professional golfers have in competing with Tiger Woods would be to “lynch [him] in a back alley.” The three common excuses have risen again to urge that such comments are not really such a big deal: (1) Tiger Woods is not offended so neither should we, (2) the comment was a joke, without ill-intent, and (3) any punishment is only misguided mislabeled “political correctness”.
As to whether Tiger Woods’ lack of offense excuses her from offending others I offer the following analysis. If the comment was made at a private dinner party between the two of them, then fine. If Woods was not offended from that interaction between the two of them the only parties to the discussion can resolve the matter. But the comment wasn’t just between the two of them. The comments were part of what is shared with the public. The Golf Channel (TGC) is in the business of sending messages on public airwaves designed for the public. On air reporters like Tilghman comprise the talking face of TGC. More importantly, they are paid professional wordsmiths, hired to use professional judgment consistent with the business plan of TGC. The target of the crafted messages therefore is not just the individual (Tiger Woods), but the public and audience from which TGC has the privilege of reaching and profiting from through an FCC license. The FCC only gains its authority statutorily through Congress, and Congress gets its authority from the votes of the public. TGC and PGA’s business plan is to gain more audience share through inclusiveness – bringing more minorities and women into its market share tent. Antithetical to that business plan is any comment that links lynching with African Americans, particularly with the current Jena 6 and related incidents within present memory. So such comments are not about her personal relationship with Woods, whether Woods would be offended, or political correctness. Most fundamentally, this was an error of professional judgment by a person who is paid to craft words carefully. 
And whether Tilghman intended harm by the comments is not nearly as important as the consequences of those statements. The consequence of showing insensitivity to a group of the audience the company is trying to include is more important than her intent. We, in fact, will not definitively know her intent as there is no empirical test that proves it either way.
And saliently, none of the excuses can excuse a joke that ties lynching with an African American because it dismisses and insults those who care about unjustified brutal killings. Historians note that between 1889 and 1918, a total of 2,522 black Americans were lynched, 50 of them women. There is nothing funny about people who were hanged and often burned alive. In far too many instances the crime was petty offenses such as stealing a cow, arguing with a white man, or attempting to register to vote. No one was punished in the South for taking part in a lynching until 1918. As a writer opined, “The real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that in the South he has no rights that the law will enforce.” Lynching has been recorded at least into the mid-1930’s, which is within the lifetime of millions of African Americans, some of whom probably watch TGC or the media reports about it. Lynching jokes would not be funny to those who lived with it, those who actually identify with those who suffered or those who simply want people treated fairly in this country. So unless we want to be the United States of Amnesia, we should remember this part of our history with the same sober-mindedness we would have at a funeral, or at a museum that commemorates fallen heroes from other types of atrocities. None of which, like lynching in America, is funny.
 TGC suspended her, but the terse announcement I read did not state whether the suspension was with or without pay. If with pay, then shame on TGC and its lack of honesty, sensitivity and hypocrisy. If with pay, then but for the time it took to decide, it remains on my remote’s auto favorites.
Labels: sports law scholarship