For most of this month, sports fans who complain that golf is boring could have had that opinion confirmed by the so-called “feud” between Tiger Woods and the Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia. It began during the Players Championship, when Woods and Garcia were paired together, and Woods apparently reached for a club from his bag while Garcia was taking a shot on the other side of the fairway, causing a bit of commotion that Garcia suggested as the reason for his poor shot. That decidedly tame scandal was fanned for a while by reporters, who kept asking the two about each other, and then writing down the barely barbed things they said. “He’s not the nicest guy on tour,” said Sergio of Woods. “Not real surprising that he’s complaining about something,” Tiger said of Sergio. Even for golf, this squabble seemed tame.
That is, until Tuesday, when Garcia, answering a reporter’s question about the current status of the golfers’ relationship, said, “We’ll have him ‘round every night. We will serve fried chicken.” Fried chicken has long been associated with the retrograde racial stereotyping of African Americans, often in bitter and clumsy forms of parody. Shortly afterwards, Garcia issued an apology: “I answered a question that was clearly made towards me as a joke with a silly remark, but in no way was the comment meant in a racist manner.” Woods responded on Twitter: “The comment that was made wasn’t silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate…” Later, though, Woods tweeted again, saying that he believed that Garcia felt “real regret.” On Wednesday, Garcia held a news conference, during which he offered another apology, and attempted to explain himself: “As soon as I left the dinner, I started getting a sick feeling in my body. I didn’t really sleep at all. I felt like my heart was going to come out of my body. I’ve had this sick feeling all day.”
Part of Garcia’s “sick feeling” must surely, if we are to take him at his word, stem from his regret at offending people—though his claim that he felt swiftly guilty does undercut the argument that he was unaware of the racial connotations of the reference. That visceral, sudden sinking feeling also suggests something else: that Garcia, a veteran global sports celebrity, knew almost instantly that his offensive words were something that would very likely remain with him for the rest of his career and beyond, regardless of the passing of time and the force or number of subsequent apologies.
Until this week, Garcia was mostly known as the best current player never to win a major tournament. Now, in addition to that, and to his various successes, he is the third featured actor in the ongoing contemporary story of professional golf and race. The next time a golfer says something ugly and racial, or the sport otherwise gets caught in the push and pull of its troubled past and somewhat more open present, Garcia will have his own sentence, at least, in the stories about it. How can we be sure? Well, because a similar thing happened this week, when writers immediately drew a line from Garcia to the last famous golfer who made a public joke about Tiger Woods and fried chicken.
In 1997, as a twenty-one-year-old Woods had steamed his way toward his first Masters title, Fuzzy Zoeller, a former Masters champion, was asked what he made of the young star. “The little boy is driving it well, he’s putting well,” Zoeller told reporters, adding, “You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year.” He then walked away, but turned back and said, “Got it? Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.” A week later, Zoeller was on to the apology portion of the tour, telling CNN: “My comments were not intended to be racially derogatory, and I apologize for the fact that they were misconstrued in that fashion.” He called himself a “jokester,” and lamented that is was “too bad that something I said in jest was turned into something it’s not.” Zoeller’s spin on what he had, or had not, really meant was not widely believed; soon after, he lost his sponsorship deal with Kmart. And now, when people think of Fuzzy, they think of a bigoted remark about fried chicken.
This week, as Sergio scrambled to explain himself, and save his own endorsement deals, Zoeller’s quote loomed down there a few paragraphs below the top, giving the latest story context and the weight of history. It appears, typically, in a familiar formulation—the same one as above—with the outrageous quote annotated by the fact that the person later apologized. It’s not that a statement gets taken out of context, exactly, but it goes from being a moment in time to a fixed event in history.
The people behind notorious quotations live on beyond them, though. And sometimes those people are changed—better—in ways they would not have been had they never said what they did. This effect was illustrated recently when the N.B.A. player Jason Collins announced that he was gay. Many of the stories (mine included) that noted Collins’s bravery pointed to the negative things that former player Tim Hardaway had said in 2007 about the prospect of gay players in professional basketball. Hardaway later apologized. But unlike some athletes who do only what they have to in order to save what they can of their careers, his was not just the compulsory apology. He went on to work with gay-rights groups, to learn why what he said was wrong and to make a real effort to atone for it. He had undergone, as he said in 2011, a true “change of heart.” Recently, he told the Palm Beach Post, “What I did say was terrible, and it was bad and I live with it every day. It was like a bully going to beat up people every day.” And in April, he reached out to Collins and offered him his support. Now, when gay athletes come out of the closet, there will be a sentence about Hardaway and what he said—but below that, there will be another, about what he has done, and said, since. His cruel statements cannot, and should not, be erased, but they mean something different today than they did then.
Fuzzy Zoeller is still around, too. This week, he was in Indiana, to promote Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka, which is sponsoring a car in the Indianapolis 500. When asked about Sergio, Tiger, and chicken, Zoeller stuck to his initial apology, and seemed to show little interest in making real amends or reshaping his place in the story. “Mine was a joke that went bad,” he said. “What the hell, I paid my dues.”