We are not surprised when a sport commentator or talk show host gets media attention–or even loses his precious job–for making insensitive racial or gender comments about athletes. That is why Sergio’s statement about Tiger Woods caught many of us by surprise. In this incident, one well respected golf professional publicly used racially charged words in reference to another.
Let me offer some background leading up to Sergio’s latest not so kind words about Tiger caught in the media. According to a Golf.com article, the feud between Sergio and Tiger started back in 2000 at a golf tournament called the Battle of Bighorn. When Tiger’s lost, Garcia’s win supposedly caused him to celebrate ‘like he’d just won the lotteryâ€.[i]Â I think it is safe to say that event sparked a competitiveness that evolved over time as they competed against each other in tournament after tournament.
The 2013 Player’s Championship for which Tiger impressively won was no exception and an incident occurring during their pairing on the 16th hole may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. While some of the details remain fuzzy, Sergio complained that just as he committed to his swing, Tiger intentionally made the audience laugh. Â Any one who is a golf fan knows that the swing is affected by a host of things and the audience is trained to hush during that moment. After hearing about Sergio’s remark from a reporter, Tiger denied the accusation and went on to say the he was not surprised that Garcia was ‘complaining about somethingâ€. To add salt to injury, Garcia’s promising run to close on Tiger’s lead along the final holes of the tournament championship ended as he triple bogeyed at 17 and bogeyed again at 18.
So, as Sergio is still licking his wounds during a black tie European player golf award dinner, he gives a visceral response to a reporter who asked him if he would be inviting Tiger to dinner anytime soon. Â According to a Bleachreport.com article, Sergio answered ‘We will have him round every night.â€ ‘We will serve fried chickenâ€.[ii] If you have followed similar stories in sports news, you will be familiar with the following subsequent sequence of events.
As near as I can gather, the first major event is that Garcia’s largest endorser Taylor Made contacted him to get his side of the story. The company released a comment stating that they felt Sergio was truly sorry and that the matter was still under investigation on their end. This typically means the company is waiting to see if the media fall out is so great that they have show publicly that they are punishing him in some form or fashion.
Then came Sergio’s media statement. This video captures what he said:
Basically, Sergio is saying that it was a poor off the cuff remark made in response to what he saw as a tongue in cheek question from a reporter. He said that he was sick to his stomach for the remainder of the evening and did not get much sleep after to realizing what he had done.
So there we have it. But, wait. Could part of his concern after the comment be about how Taylor Made may respond? If the comments were not intended to be racial, why was the fried chicken comment used to make a joke of it? Why not make a joke about Tiger’s Asian background (See my article on former ESPN’s Max Bretos’ Chink in the Armor comment)[iii]?
As a social scientist, I can also point to research that indicates that a person’s unfiltered response to matters about race typically reflect genuine beliefs. In fact, one of the most difficult things to survey is our attitude towards other groups. This is due to what is referred to as the social desirability effect. Â We do not want others thinking unfavorably towards us, so we pretend that we are more open-minded and tolerant than we really are. The problem is that it is difficult to design a test to assess something like prejudice without giving away what you are up to. The best way to assess such sensitive beliefs and values is to require the person to respond under quick reaction time conditions. The reporter’s question was made under conditions in which we can safely say that Sergio was pressured to give a quick according to his confession.
Now let’s take this one step further to drive home the point. Tiger Woods’ ex-caddy, Steve Williams, used a similar set of derogatory words at a formal dinner for caddies a couple of years back. Tiger was clearly hurt by the comments. Did Sergio unconsciously dreg up those comments in his knee jerk response. While we will never know for certain, my analysis has left more suspicions than a sense of ‘There’s nothing here, so let’s move onâ€.
I am not trying to say that Sergio is prejudice or that his apology is insincere. That would be reading his mind. As a psychologist, I have been accused of mind reading, but I know better. My point is that we must go beyond taking a person’s word when claiming that her or his harmful words were unintentional. Yet, professionals like human resource managers are all too often faced with the dilemma of trying to sort out such matters. My professional recommendation is to utilize a well-test coaching program that the culprit is required to complete. If the person is innocent, the coaching will increase the individual’s knowledge about how to navigate similar future situations–which certainly can’t hurt. Coaching can also help to identify the individuals who may not be right for the organization in terms of personal bias towards differences that may be difficult to change.
What do you think? Is Sergio just being a zealous competitor or should we be concerned that there is
Billy Vaughn, PhD CDP is an award winning cultural diversity teacher. He consistently receives very high training and consulting ratings. His blog DTUI.com Diversity Blog is very popular and there are a number of articles about cultural diversity in sports.Â
[i]Â Great Divide: Tiger’s breathtaking victory was tempered by a soap opera sideshow by Michael Bamberger, Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated, Monday, May 13, 2013.
[ii] Sergio Garcia Makes Insensitive Remark about Tiger Woods, by Tim Keeney. Bleachers.com, May 21, 2013.
[iii] Firing ESPN’s Max Bretos for the Chink in the Armor Comment Was Insensitive, by Billy Vaughn, February 19, 2012. DTUI.com Diversity Blog.