Tiger Woods is perhaps the most famous, and most dominant, athlete in the world today. The 32-year-old golfer with the multicultural background he once proudly described as "Cablinasian" has somehow accomplished the impossible: made golf on a Sunday must-see TV.
Woods is a trailblazer and already a legend for his ability to perform when the spotlight is at its hottest. But he has also established a reputation for reticence when confronted with the real world off the greens.
For all his cultural capital, Woods has refused to take stands on issues that should hit close to home, such as restricted golf courses, or even when the Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman suggested young PGA players "lynch him in a back alley" in a "joke" about how they might overcome his dominance. Tiger has largely maintained the tight-lipped silence of a Benedictine monk.
After the lynching comment, ESPN's Scoop Jackson became so frustrated with this disciplined quietude he wrote, "Because of who he is, Tiger Woods has the power to make people listen. Not just hear his words—but embrace what he has to say....It's a stand he needs to take because people who change the world eventually have to take stands. Whether strong or silent, good or evil, they take stands not to prove their beliefs, but to rectify a situation or condition."
His defenders have always said that behind the scenes Woods has been an agent for change, and that he shouldn't be criticized just because he does his good deeds without media fanfare. They say he wields that influence through his non-profit Tiger Woods Foundation.
Go to the website, and a virtual Woods walks right onto your screen and welcomes you to a place where "kids can achieve anything." The site boasts: "more than 10 million young people have benefited from the Tiger Woods Foundation since its inception in 1996. What started out with limited access throughout America, now reaches out to young people around the world."
Yet now the Foundation is "reaching around the world" in a way that has human rights activists concerned about a business partnership that smells like sulfur.
The Tiger Woods Foundation has entered into an extensive five-year partnership with Chevron Corporation, with the oil and energy giant becoming the title sponsor of the Tiger Woods Foundation World Challenge Golf Tournament.
"Chevron has a track record and a commitment to bettering the communities where they operate," Woods said in a press release on April 3rd. And Chevron's executive vice president chimed in, "Chevron, Tiger and the Tiger Woods Foundation share similar values...as well as a deep commitment to make a difference in local communities."
They have certainly "made a difference in local communities," but it's nothing they should be bragging about, and certainly nothing with which Woods should want his name attached.
Chevron is in full partnership with the Burmese military regime on the Yadana gas pipeline project, the single greatest source of revenue for the military, estimated at nearly $1 billion in 2007, nearly half of all the country's revenue. These are the same people who are blocking international aid workers from assisting the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
The death toll has been estimated at 78,000, but this number can explode as disease spreads and help isn't allowed through the military lines. Even the US State Department has called the actions of the government "appalling."
Ka Hsaw Wa, co-founder and executive director of EarthRights International, wrote in an open letter to Woods, "I myself have spoken to victims of forced labor, rape, and torture on Chevron's pipeline—if you heard what they said to me, you too would understand how their tragic stories stand in stark contrast to Chevron's rhetoric about helping communities." ERI's request to meet with Woods or someone from the foundation has been met with silence
But while the Burmese junta's crimes are localized in Southeast Asia, Chevron is global. Lawsuits have been issued against Chevron's toxic waste dumping in Alaska, Canada, Angola, and California. Then there's the matter of 18 billion gallons of toxic waste the company has been accused of dumping in the Amazon.
In a US District Court in San Francisco, the case of Bowoto v. Chevron, Nigerian plaintiffs have accused Chevron of actually arming and outfitting Nigerian oil security forces to shoot and kill protesters. Judge Susan Illston has refused to dismiss the case because, as Democracy Now! recently reported, "evidence show[s] direct links to Chevron officials."
When pressed for comment, Tiger Woods Foundation President Greg McLaughlin issued this statement to me: "The Foundation's vision is to help young people reach their full potential. All our partners share in this vision, allowing us to make a positive impact in millions of young lives." That response, to very serious and very direct charges, is the golf equivalent of a triple bogey.
President McLaughlin should think more seriously about what Chevron is and what they do: They pollute, they destroy, they conspire with dictators, and heaven help anyone who gets in their way. Now they want to burnish their "brand" by partnering with Tiger Woods.
Tiger's late father Earl, once said of his son, "He will transcend this game...and bring to the world...a humanitarianism...which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in...by virtue of his existence...and his presence."
The partnership with Chevron makes a mockery of Earl Woods's hopes.
To use an analogy from a different sport, the ball is now in Tiger's court. Will he allow himself to be tamed by corporate interests, or will he roar?
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