Icons Serena Williams, Tiger Woods chose different paths when it came to social justice | Opinion

We will always know Serena Williams first and foremost as a tennis player, the best there has ever been. But at about the same time she introduced herself to the sports world by winning the 1999 U.S. Open at 17, she also began a life of very public social activism, one that stands in sharp contrast to that of another sports superstar, one who happened to be in her box Wednesday night, cheering her on.

The year was 2000, a long time ago, long enough to have forgotten the story. The topic was the Confederate flag, which was still flying over the South Carolina statehouse 135 years after the end of the Civil War. Athletes were being asked about the flag, especially athletes with events in the state. In other words, golfers and tennis players.

Tiger Woods was 24 in April 2000. He had just finished his final round of that year’s Masters when a question about the state flag came his way, which was fitting because the PGA Tour’s next stop was the MCI Classic at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

“Are you playing in South Carolina this week at all? Tomorrow?”

Tiger: “No, I’m not.”

Q: “Are you familiar with the flag issue?”

A: “Uh-huh.”

Q: “Have you been contacted by the NAACP (which had called for a tourism boycott of the state), and do you have any comment on that?”

A: “Un-uh.”

Q: “Is that why you’re not playing there?”

A: “No. I’m going home. I’ve had a good run up to this week, and now it’s time for me to take a little break.” 

OPINION: Serena Williams falls at US Open in match that was epic tribute to her legendary career

DEFINING GREATNESS: Serena Williams is a living legend. Just look at her records.

OPINION: Serena Williams’ case as the GOAT in women’s tennis isn’t as airtight as you think

It was a terrible moment for Tiger that looks even worse 22 years later. Given every opportunity to stand up for millions of Black people who have never had the platform he has, given every chance to perhaps change a racist state policy with one carefully chosen sentence considering how important the golf industry was and is to the state, Tiger took a pass. 

As he told Sports Illustrated before the Masters: “I’m a golfer. That’s their deal, you know?”

Not surprisingly, Tiger was given the benefit of the doubt from an entirely sympathetic and mostly sycophantic golf press corps. He’s so young, they said. He’s only 24. Give him a break.

There was just one problem with the “he’s so young” excuse: someone nearly six years younger, an 18-year-old tennis player named Serena Williams, decided at the same time to not play in the Family Circle Cup tennis tournament in Hilton Head, supporting the NAACP’s boycott call. 

“My decision to not play in South Carolina was based on a much deeper issue and one that I feel strongly about,” Williams, then the sixth-ranked player in the world, said at the time. 

“I wouldn’t go … until the flag was removed,” she recalled in 2015, the year the flag finally came down. “Once it was, I went there, and only after the Confederate flag was removed.”

All these years later, Serena and Tiger have become dear friends. Perhaps they don’t remember what the other said during those days 22 years ago. Perhaps they do and don’t care. 

But it happened, and it was a launching pad, in a way, for both of them. Serena, and her sister Venus, have gone on to lives fighting for causes ranging from support for racial justice and working mothers to equal pay for women, including tennis players. Tiger, toeing the conservative line the vast majority of male golfers choose, has stayed silent on almost every important social issue of the day, although he did take a strong stand recently against the blood money of Saudi LIV Golf. 

Back when they were young, and it mattered, they made their choices. Tiger went on vacation. Serena went to work. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.