Fuzzy Thinking

I am so upset about the whole Fuzzy Zoeller thing that I'm not going to write another column until Tiger Woods calls me. Or Fuzzy. Or Jesse Jackson. Or anybody else who has participated in this mole-hill-to-mountain development project.Actually, maybe this whole farce proves that Earl Woods was right after all. Tiger Woods may very well change the world. In the past two weeks golf has been front page news on four different occasions. Last Wednesday night, according to Dan Rather and CBS national news, the Fuzzy-Tiger story was the second most important thing that had happened in the world that day.Of course, Fuzzy Zoeller wishes it had been otherwise. His off-the- cuff comments at the Masters golf tournament caused an aftershock that would impress Hollywood special effects experts.By now most everyone knows that Zoeller, in an on-course interview about Tiger Woods, tried to quip about whether fried chicken and collard greens would be served at next year's past champions dinner. He also referred to Tiger as the "little boy" in discussing Woods' precocious Masters performance.Columnists, editorial writers, and professional commentators like Jesse Jackson have compared Fuzzy's transgressions to every bigot short of Hitler. Most frequently, Zoeller's remarks have been compared to those of Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, who once said African-Americans were bred to play basketball, and Al Campanis, who said blacks weren't intelligent enough to be baseball managers.Those irresponsible and inaccurate comparisons are only some of the things that have made me mad. Another is the uproar over Zoeller's use of the term "little boy." It was clearly a reference to Tiger's age, not his race. And if "boy" is out of bounds when describing African Americans who are not adults, we probably ought to banish it from the language. And why not the same scrutiny of Tom Watson, who called Tiger a "boy among men" in an interview during the tournament?The comparisons with Snyder and Campanis are infuriating because both of them were serious when they made their comments. There is no doubt that Fuzzy was shooting at satire when he made the chicken and collard greens remark, even if the attempted joke was shanked (a golf shot that goes sideways). Stupidity aside, the remark wasn't even funny. But Fuzzy is first and foremost an entertainer, and what he tried to do was not significantly different than what many comedians do. Terry Meiners does similar things every afternoon on WHAS radio, and The Bob and Tom Show does far worse every morning. Why is Fuzzy's ethnic joke worse than theirs? Is it because it involves the latest American icon? Is it strictly a black and white thing? If, instead of "fried chicken and collard greens," Zoeller had said "peanut sauce" in reference to Tiger's Thai ancestry, would anyone have said a word?I'm mad at Jesse Jackson for getting so damn sanctimonious about Zoeller's remark. He once described New York City as "Heimytown" because of its heavy Jewish population. So he, more than most people, ought to understand the need to put isolated slips of the tongue in perspective. They are wrong and their speakers need to be slapped, but the degree of pillorization suffered by Fuzzy is a disproportionate response.I'm mad at Fuzzy as well, but not about his remarks. They constituted poor timing, judgment and humor, but I've heard so much worse, in public and in private, from people who are anything but bigots, that I've come to understand there is a difference between good-natured satire and mean-spirited racial insults. And let's remember that the comment was not even inherently offensive, unless fried chicken and collard greens have assumed some satanic relevance. If ethnic food is insulting, thousands of restaurants should prepare for picket lines.Fuzzy was wrong when he turned the spotlight back on Tiger by pressuring him to respond. This wasn't between Fuzzy and Tiger; it was between Fuzzy and his public. Tiger was an innocent bystander who should not have been accorded the power to render judgment on Fuzzy. He is not (yet) a person of Moses' stature, who comes down from the mountain-top (a.k.a. the Oprah show) and lays down the law about Fuzzy's sins: Thou shall not make ethnic jokes in front of CNN cameras.Of course none of this would be possible without my media colleagues, who decided, several days after the fact, that Fuzzy's quote had major story potential because of its hook to Woods. Then they showed the tape to the usual suspects, Jesse Jackson, et al., who had no option but to sound outraged, because if they had said "It's no big deal," or "There are more important things to worry about," they would have had no air time. So all of a sudden we have a national story perfectly suited to be sustained by radio talk shows and columnists everywhere. Meanwhile, I'm betting Tiger was sitting in his Orlando home wondering if he might be better off answering reporters in native Thai, so he won't be misconstrued.Of all the things I'm mad about, however, my greatest frustration is that a person like Fuzzy Zoeller in any way drives our dialogue about race. He is not a government official, a corporate CEO, a university president, or a newspaper editor, or a talk show host. He is a fun-loving athlete/entertainer; nothing he does or says about anything other than golf is important enough to debate. It offends me that so much time, energy and emotion have been expended over something and someone so totally insignificant to the dynamic of American race relations.This episode epitomizes the expression "comedy of errors." Everyone involved was wrong. And I'm really teed off!

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