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confessions of an enabler
From ali to pete rose to bobby knight
to tiger, we were charmed by tom callahan
’ve been looking for Tiger Woods’
“enablers” since that latest brush with
roadside gravel and pathos. I was about
ready to declare them unfindable when
all of a sudden I turned a corner, and
there they were.
It’s I. It’s we.
By the way, it’s you in par ticular.
We’re all enablers. Sixty-three million
Americans enabled Donald Trump, and now
he is alone and can’t be told anything. A
few more million Americans (but 10 fewer
states) enabled Hillary Clinton, who along
with her party forgot the words of John F.
Kennedy (“the torch has been passed
to a new generation ... ”) and instead
passed it back to an old generation because
that’s where the money, not to mention the
In my time, I was a great enabler of O.J.
Simpson, and not only because, in the
sportswriting dodge, we forgive a lot in a
guy who’ll answer our calls. I liked him from
the day in a Cincinnati hotel room where
a bunch of us were measuring Simpson
against the retired Jim Brown, and O.J .
turned to me and asked, “ Who do you say
was the best? Me or Brown?”
“Gale Sayers,” I replied.
He laughed. Brown wouldn’t have
laughed. Simpson won me with a laugh.
Brown was the best, incidentally, almost
as good at shrugging off tacklers as he was
at shrugging off allegations of violence
I knew both Woody Hayes at Ohio State
and Bobby Knight at Indiana. (I played golf
with Knight.) And I knew how it was going to
end for both of them.
I think everybody did.
They got the big things right and the
little things wrong. Woody beat up sideline
yard markers, practising for beating up
a Clemson middle guard named Charlie
Bauman, who had just intercepted a pass
from Buckeyes quarterback Art Schlichter,
the most enabled miscreant in the annals of
the Big Ten. That’s how Woody went out.
Knight, the all-time undisciplined
disciplinarian, ordering haircuts while
throwing furniture, also left on a banana
peel. He sure was fun to enable.
So was Pete Rose. Somehow, Pete
skipped his true generation. Bootlegging
memories from the old Yankee Hall of
Famer Waite Hoyt, Rose spoke of Babe
Ruth as if Pete was standing there when
the Babe lifted his considerable self out
of the bathtub and pulled on a white terry-
cloth robe (“with the red BR on the left
breast pocket”, Pete said, tracing Babe’s
monogram with a finger).
Sitting in the dugout a couple of hours
before a game, Rose watched knuckleball
pitcher Phil Niekro jogging in the outfield,
and said, “You know, I ’ve got 71 hits off Phil
Niekro. I ’ve got 41 hits off Joe Niekro. Damn,
I wish Mrs Niekro had had another son!”
Instead of being saddened by a man so
single-faceted, we were charmed.
Muhammad Ali, touchstone for racism,
the Vietnam War and the assassination
decade of the ’60s, never said a racist thing
– a s far as I can tell – after Elijah Muhammad
of the Nation of Islam died in 1975. And the
racist things Ali said before that, he didn’t
mean. Anyone who ever got close enough
to look him in the eye saw only love there.
That’s why we enabled the hell out of him.
“Black men scare white men more than
black men scare black men,” he told me late
one night by the Congo River in Zaire. That
had nothing to do with race and everything
to do with me picking George Foreman in
one. “You always wrong,” Ali said years later
with dancing eyes. Yep, pretty much.
“He was a great kid,” Ernie Els said of
Tiger in 2009, shortly after the Escalade hit
the fire hydrant. “I mean, a really great kid.
You knew him.”
Well, he was never a great kid. But he
was a great player.
“A tough little guy, but a shy, nice kid,”
Els continued. “You could see he had a lot
of chip on him because of all his father’s
influence. Earl was putting it on him to look
the guys in the eye, and obviously he did an
I have an old tape of Earl Woods, the
enabler-in-chief, who made even fabulist
agent Mark Steinberg seem almost credible,
saying in that mellifluous voice of his, “Tiger
never lies. He told a lie once when he was a
child, and it made him physically sick.”
There’s a pause on the recording, after
which you can hear me across the room say,
“Earl, he’s the biggest [bleeping] liar on the
Something Ernie said seven years ago,
unlike almost everything that has been said
since, has stayed true.
“ What’ll he do in the Masters?” I asked.
“Contend,” he said.
“He’ll be fifth.”
(He was fourth.)
“But win it?” Ernie said. “No chance.”
“Ernie, if he can finish fifth, he can win it.”
“No, there’s a guilt. There’s a conscience.
You can’t play your best without self-
respect. I don’t know what’s going to
happen from here on out, but I know one
thing: it’s never going to be the same.”
It’s never going to be the same.
When Tiger was 4, Earl and Kultida took
him to Kansas to visit Earl’s family. The
oldest sister, Hattie Belle, who raised the
siblings after their parents died, stood in
the yard tossing a football to Tiger. “I’ll
watch him,” she told Earl and Tida as they
headed off to the store.
But the moment they were out of sight,
she dropped the football and picked up
Tiger. “They don’t touch him enough,” she
told her sister Mae. “Look at those sad
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