Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Private Club - Public Concerns

The privileged few in society born with silver spoons in their mouths and accustomed to most of life’s offerings being handed to them on a platter are rarely coerced into doing what goes against their wishes. Since attempting to treat them like regular folk with accountability to others tends to be futile, such attempts are rarely made. When someone nonetheless shows the gall to take off kid gloves and treat the privileged few as if they are subject to the same rules and regulations as everyone else, hell hath no fury like a spoiled brat being told what to do.

Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) certainly understood this when she sent a brief letter to the attention of Hootie Johnson, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club. In her note, she criticized Augusta’s long-standing (69 years to date) practice of excluding women from membership in the private club. This is not to say that Ms. Burk has a problem in general with private organizations. Most Americans accept the fact that the Girl Scouts have the right to exclude boys, and that college sororities should not be made to admit young men. There are plenty of boys-only and girls-only organizations in the U.S. that are allowed to conduct their activities hassle free. In the case of the Augusta National Golf Club, however, this particular private club happens to host the world-renown Masters Golf Tournament. By sponsoring one of the four major championships in the sport of golf, for one week in every year a very public spotlight is cast upon Augusta. The event is televised for the viewing pleasure of millions of people who tune in to see who will receive the coveted green jacket that is awarded to the tournament champion. Some people feel it is reasonable to say that the Masters, which is the youngest but also the most popular of golf’s four major championships, is public property. And since the tournament belongs to all of us, should it not be played at a venue that belongs (at least in theory) to all of us?

Hootie disagrees with the premise of this argument, and expressed his difference of opinion to Ms. Burk’s three-sentence letter of complaint with a three-page response of indignation. After all, for fifty-one weeks of the year Augusta is a private club, with the emphasis on private. There is no application to obtain, membership is offered strictly to those who are deemed worthy rather than merely being a matter of one's ability to afford entry. For one week of the year, Augusta presents the world of sports with the gift of the Masters. They offer this tournament with a lack of commercialization that has distinguished it not only from other golf tournaments, but from all major sporting events. Unlike other tournaments that are played on a different course each year, there are strong ties between the Masters, the course it is played on, and the organization that presents it. So the suggestion to simply move it elsewhere if Augusta refuses to change its policies would be met with much resistance. Augusta and the Masters have always gone hand in hand. Tradition serves in this matter (as it often does in the American South) as a double edged sword, with both praise and derision earned for the same act - standing still in a perpetually changing world. Augusta generates a sizeable chunk of change for its efforts, so hosting the Masters is not exactly charity. According to Johnson though, this money does not benefit the club membership, but goes back into the tournament or is given away. He finds it unfair for Augusta to be “penalized” by having to forfeit its private-club status because they do something that is universally viewed as good for the game of golf with minimal compensation. So regardless of one’s views on feminism or elitism, it seems that Hootie does have a well thought out answer for every one of Martha’s concise charges.

Nevertheless, Ms. Burk and the NCWO are by no means backing down. They intend to organize a protest at next year’s (April 2003) Masters if a woman member has not been admitted to Augusta by then. They will certainly be joined by others, including Reverend Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition, who are offended by the discriminatory practices of Augusta. As for going to the sponsors of the tournament for support, Ms. Burk need not bother. In a pre-emptive strike, Johnson cancelled the sponsorships of Coke, IBM and Citigroup, opting to broadcast the tournament commercial free rather than giving them the chance to snub the Masters. So when Tiger Woods attempts to earn a historic third consecutive green jacket, he will be doing so at a televised but nonetheless private show being put on by a private club. There will be picketers carrying signs and shouting disapproval, but will this be enough to budge the obstinate Hootie Johnson? Doubtful. Mr. Johnson and the club members that he speaks for live in a privileged world that has suited them just fine for a long time. They are quite slow to change, as is evidenced by the fact that it was not until 1990 that the first African-American member was admitted. This came a full fifteen years after Lee Elders became the first black man to play the Masters. Hootie does not rule out the possibility of a woman gaining entrance into his club someday. But he adamantly states that there is no chance of this event occurring prior to next Apirl, regardless of what Martha Burk and others do or say. This is his right under the law of the land.

To illustrate that there is national support for Augusta’s cause, they commissioned a poll. 74% of the respondents agreed that a private club has the right to choose its own members, and if that means single sex membership, so be it. Hootie further points out that women are allowed to play the Augusta courses, so long as they are accompanied by a member. This makes Augusta more progressive than certain other golf clubs where women are not allowed at all. With Hootie Johnson making several reasonable points, some people have criticized Martha Burk for making such a big deal of this issue when there are so many situations that seem more pertinent to the rights of women. How many lives will be affected to a significant degree if one or two wealthy women are allowed to become members of Augusta? Will this truly be a major step forward for the women’s movement? Why would any woman even want to join a club where she was so obviously not wanted? Perhaps my last question is irrelevant. The women’s movement, like the civil rights movement, like any movement undergone by those in a subjugated societal position, is not about gaining admittance to places that are welcoming. Rather, it is about forcing change against the will of those who want things to remain as they have always been, because they are the sole beneficiaries of an unenlightened society. Jackie Robinson did not join the Dodgers because Major League baseball players and fans of the sport were clamoring for a black man to take the field. He took the field, stayed on it, and excelled on it, in spite of opposition to his presence.

Of course, breaking the color barrier in a prominent sports league, or a school system, or a field of employment is not exactly equivalent to getting into country club. This is a significant point to many people, but not necessarily to Martha Burk. Her contention that the Masters is a public rather than private event can be rightfully disputed. She can claim however much she wants that this is a moral issue rather than a legal one, but legality is enforceable, morality is not. It is however rather difficult to argue against her viewpoint that the discriminatory policies of Augusta remind women of “the glass ceiling and unequal pay and all the reasons women are running second in America”. Such policies remind all of us, regardless of race or religion or gender, that the privileged few reside in a world that is above you and I, and they want it to stay this way. For those who have a problem with this state of being, maybe it doesn’t matter what lies behind the doors that a movement breaks through. Perhaps it only matters that the doors go down.

No comments:

Post a Comment