Let’s get something straight: Any ranking of the greatest black athletes ever that doesn’t include Tiger Woods is not something I can get behind. This list, the result of public responses to surveys conducted by SurveyMonkey for The Undefeated, could be called “50 Great Athletes People Admire Most” or “Americans’ 50 Favorite Black Athletes.” But it ain’t a credible list of the greatest if it doesn’t include Tiger.
You can dislike Tiger and you can dislike golf, but if you fail to acknowledge his competitive brilliance, his dominance of the oldest sport on the planet, his impact culturally, athletically and economically, then you should recuse yourself from weighing in on an effort to rank the greatest black athletes. There’s no responsible definition of “great” in the context of sports that Tiger Woods doesn’t fit. Any conversation that isn’t driven by personal agenda couldn’t put him any lower than 10th.
Dumping on Tiger became a sport sometime around Thanksgiving 2009, and it hasn’t let up. Surely, some of the folks surveyed hold it against him because of his salacious infidelities, others because he called himself “Cablinasian” or whatever that was 20 years ago, others because he married a white woman, others because his body broke down and he couldn’t catch Jack Nicklaus, others because he didn’t play football or baseball but made more money than anybody who ever played either. Tiger, even more than being one of the most accomplished and decorated athletes who has ever lived, is the greatest lightning rod sports has seen since a young Ali.
But none of that speaks to the criteria. Eldrick Woods is (or was) otherworldly great, and he’s black (or as black as some other people on that list). If it’s easier for people to list, when asked, Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles, go right ahead. They’re great and black AND admirable, and there’s not one reason to object to either. But if you think either — or the great Herschel Walker, for that matter — has had 1/100th the impact of Tiger Woods the golfer, then you’re delusional.
I have five personal heroes who made the list, four of them childhood idols (Gale Sayers, Ernie Banks, Arthur Ashe and Walter Payton) and one who is to this very day one of my adult heroes, a man whose career I covered and whose life is exemplary (David Robinson). But I wouldn’t try to make the case that any one of those five was the best ever in the sport he played (well, maybe Payton) or created the drama week after week after week for more than a decade that Tiger did … or dramatically altered his sport the way Tiger did, or redefined what a participant in that sport can look like the way Tiger did.
I’d like to say that his résumé needs no review, but clearly (and sadly) from the results of this flawed exercise, it does. At age 20 he became the first man to win three consecutive U.S. amateur titles. Without having played a single tournament as a professional, he signed the most lucrative endorsement contracts in golf history (and if you think Nike pays hundreds of millions to nonathletes, go ahead and keep deluding yourself). He was the youngest to win the Masters, the fastest ever to ascend to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings and, at 24, the youngest to win the career Grand Slam. You know how many people have twice been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year? One. Tiger Woods. Not Jordan, not Ali — Tiger freakin’ Woods.
He held down the No. 1 ranking for 281 consecutive weeks, which is to say five-plus years. The Associated Press named him Male Athlete of the Year a record four times. Not Tom Brady, Tiger Woods. Golf, whether we’re talking prize money, TV ratings or weekend hacker participation, shot to the heavens when Tiger came aboard, and they’re sinking like a stone now that he’s gone. Nike, in the context of golf, was a startup company, and Tiger made it the worldwide leader in golf apparel. When he limped out of contention, Nike waved bye-bye to the business of making clubs and balls. Buick was so convinced that Tiger’s association with its cars spiked their sales, the company signed him to a $40 million endorsement deal.
You want to define Tiger Woods by competitive impact: Only Sarazen, Hogan, Player and Nicklaus have all won the four major championships that constitute the Grand Slam. And only Tiger has won all four consecutively.
You want to define Tiger by economic impact: Forbes says only Oprah Winfrey, among people of color, is richer. Golf Digest reported he made nearly $770 million and will soon pass $1 billion. You want cultural impact? Every time he tees it up, even the people who were too dumb to appreciate him from 1996 to 2007 are now begging for a comeback because they realize, as every business in the golf industry does, that Rory and Jordan and DJ and all the young guys put together can’t add up to half of Tiger Woods. He’s still the world’s most recognizable golfer, the world’s richest and most celebrated golfer. Bo Jackson, who made the list, spends most every day of every week of his second life trying to be like Tiger.
And while it’s difficult at best for most folks to muster up any admiration for Tiger these days, what the folks who participated in the survey collectively also fail to acknowledge is that Tiger conquered a sport that directed a whole lot of hostility his way. He wasn’t Jackie Robinson, but it wasn’t like he was walking into an NBA arena every night, especially his first two or three years on tour.
In the context of how we measure athletes, there’s no category in which Tiger Woods comes up short. He’s either the second greatest person to ever compete in his sport (to Nicklaus) or No. 1. The other people who qualify for that discussion in their respective sports (Jim Brown, Jordan, Magic, Bill Russell, Ali, Joe Louis, Serena Williams, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, LeBron) are all included.
Woods being left off is a glaring omission, one that undermines the intelligence and wisdom of thousands and thousands of survey respondents. Kobe Bryant being left off is a head-shaker — so is Mike Tyson — and Jack Johnson is nearly as egregious an error as Woods. The international search to find somebody to beat Johnson is the origin of the phrase “great white hope.” His July 4, 1910, victory over Jim Jeffries in the “Fight of the Century” ignited race riots in more than a dozen cities. No black (or white) athlete since has had that kind of cultural impact nationally. You can’t make the argument that Joe Frazier is greater than Jack Johnson. But I’m willing to believe you have to be nearly 60 years old to have any idea of how important Johnson was not just to blacks and athletes but to the United States early in the 20th century.
You can’t even tell the story of the black athlete in America without serious examination of Johnson. And you can’t carry the discussion into the 21st century, no matter how young you are, without including the incomparable achievements of a black man who, like Johnson, was a first: Tiger Woods.