Monday, June 30, 2008

Why you should care about golf

I know I have written about my appreciation (dare I say love?) for golf elsewhere in this blog, but I want to take a moment and talk about why you should care about golf.

[This is a course in Whistler, British Columbia]

First of all, I'm not trying to argue that golf is problem free or that anyone should be enamored of golf. For many, watching golf on tv is about as stimulating as watching paint dry. For others, going out once on the fairways and having the most frustrating time hitting a tiny ball with a thin stick was an exercise in pointlessness that they never want to repeat. And for the socially conscientious among us, how can we sanction a game (and for many, this is a game and not a sport--begging questions of athleticism and physical prowess) that has all sorts of "-isms" associated with it? Elitism, sexism, racism, anti-environmentalism, and homophobia (OK, last one didn't end in "-ism" but I think you get my point).

I was reminded of all these issues when I read this entry in Poplicks' blog titled "Equality at any cost?" The post was about the recent flap at Phoenix Country Club over the inequitable status of their female members--recently The New York Times reported on this case of gender discrimination at elite golf clubs (click here).

[By the way, if the topic of gender discrimination and elite golf courses rings any bells in your subconscious, it's because around 2002-2003 there was a BIG FLAP about Augusta National, host of the annual Masters tournament (what some in golf circles believes is THE premiere golf major of the four majors--U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship). Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, organized a boycott of Augusta National due to their discriminatory practices--specifically, they do not allow women to join the club. If you want a thorough and fairly unbiased account of this issue read Alan Shipnuck's The Battle for Augusta National: Hootie, Martha, and the Masters of the Universe. What I can tell you as a golfer and as someone who just finished the book, is that the Masters continues to be held every April; Augusta National continues to bar women from its club; and most people seem to have forgotten about all of this...except maybe we shouldn't have.]

Poplicks asks:

"Is equality always worth striving and fighting for in principle even when one struggle for equality still reifies or leaves untouched other structures of inequality?"

And my answer is yes.

Because if you don't think your life is touched by what goes on at a golf course, particularly an elite golf course, think again. Most major business deals happen on golf courses. Most executives in Fortune 500 companies golf. Corporate sponsors of golf tournaments proliferate on the PGA and LPGA. Unless you are living totally off the grid in the U.S., your life is touched and impacted by corporate America in a fairly significant way. Where you bank, where you shop, the car you drive, the bank that holds the mortgage on your home (or the home you rent), the television you watch--this is all corporate America. And the people who sit on the boards of these companies, who make decisions about finances and environmental issues and who to hire and more importantly promote within the upper ranks of their businesses--these people golf.

We want, we NEED the people at the top levels of corporate America to be conscientious of women, people of color, working-class and poor people, queer people, the environment and so many other issues that impact the lives of people who are not in a position of power and influence. If corporate America continues to discriminate, on and off the golf course, this is NOT good for any of us, regardless of whether you identify with a disenfranchised group,, because we are ALL impacted by discrimination and at bare minimum, how could you perpetuate sexism when all of us must have at least one kick-ass woman (hopefully a mother/grandmother/sister/daughter/niece/aunt) in your life that you would never want to see discriminated against.

I'm not trying to overstate the case--like golf is a means of mind control for the elite (like the Borg in Star Trek--they are trying to assimilate you one fairway at a time) but I am trying to demonstrate that the culture of Corporate America is tied up into golf -- that golf functions more like an institution than a mere game. And so as an institution with power--especially a diffuse and nebulous power (which makes it all the more tricky to pin down) the kinds of discrimination that continue in elite clubs and on golf courses is something we need to combat.

Putting aside issues of race (although there are HUGE inequities of race going on at elite courses) and looking at gender discrimination, there are some telling quotes by academics who study the link between that damn glass ceiling that women bump their head into in Corporate America:

"In the course of our study of issues confronting top executive women, we would ask women what, if anything, they saw as a barrier to further advancemet in senior management, in rainmaking success, in gaining membership in The Club. Over and over again, we heard variations on the same theme: golf" (162).

"'I finally learned how to play. Golf's not so hard, but thd problem is the country clubs. They are the most sexist, and don't allow women to play at the times the men are playing. One day I had three male clients from Detroit flying in to play golf with me. They arrived at ten A.M. and we had to sit around until we were allowed to tee off at one-thirty'" (162).

"Jane Blalock [former pro-golfer and president of a sports marketing firm] is well aware of the final reason many women have not yet caught the golf fever: the discriminatory attitude of many country clubs toward women players" (166).

[Above quotes taken from Members of the Club: The Coming of Age in Executive Women by Dawn-Marie Driscoll and Carol R. Goldberg, New York: The Free Press, 1993]

"In a study of executives who manage 'corporate-government affairs,' Denise Benoit Scott found that the women in such positions 'share meals with staff members and other government relations officials but never play golf.' In contrast, men in such positions 'play golf with a broad range of peole in business and government, including legislators and top corporate executives.' As one of the women she interviewed put it: 'I wish I played golf. I think golf is the key. If you want to make it, you have to play golf.'" (52-53).

"A few months before Bill Clinton was elected president, his future secretary of energy had some pertinent comments about the importance of fitting into corporate culture and the relevance of playing golf. 'Without losing your own personality, said Hazel O'Leary, then an executive vice president at Northern States Power in Minnesota, 'it's important to be part of the prevailing corporate culture. At this company, it's golf. I've resisted learning to play golf all my life, but I finally had to admit I was missing something that way.' She took up golf" (53-54).

[Above quotes taken from Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? by Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998]

I'm not suggesting that everyone run out and learn to play golf (although I do enjoy it myself) but I do think that we should care about whether or not Phoenix and Augusta and Burning Tree and other clubs are excluding women. And just as you can't pull apart race and gender, I guarantee that clubs that act in a discriminatory fashion towards women are not exactly rolling out the welcome mat for non-white players.


Genepool said...

Although I haven't played golf in about 7 years, I did enjoy the sport while I did. There is just something about being on the course in the wee hours fighting the birds for the fairway and cursing quietly when that stupid little ball decides to go sight-seeing.

I have never played at what would be considered an "elite" club, I could never afford it at the time. I probably could now, but the holes in the ground aren't any bigger at those places which seems an injustice considering the cost of membership.

I have had conversations about the sort of restrictions these sorts of clubs place on certain segments of society and whether or not it should be legal. My group of malcontents, in the course of our discussion, decided that it should be legal, I mean these ARE private clubs, why shouldn't they be able to pick and choose who they retain or exclude for membership? Do I think this is a GOOD way to run their clubs? No of course not. If my daughter came home and told me she was sent away from a club I'm thinking I would be pretty pissed. (She's only 2 so we're years away from that scenario)

On the other hand I am not against gender-exclusive clubs. People seem to think that any sort of exclusion is a bad thing, but I disagree. I see nothing wrong with having womens or mens only clubs. I can understand why women would be be particularly annoyed with the gender-bias considering (to my knowledge) there are no female exclusive golf clubs out there.

Of course the issue of exclusion extends beyond mere race and gender. That whole debacle at Harvard over barring men from the athletic department during certain hours so Muslim women could exercise is a good example. Should we accommodate those Muslim women's needs over other needs or point them to the nearest private women's-only health clubs?

I use Muslim as an example only. I'm an atheist so I harbor no sympathy for any religions special needs in public places. I don't care how much your God will give you in the afterlife, if your beliefs dictate you should dance naked on the table before a meal, I don't don't want you eating at my IHop.

I sympathize with the frustration being felt by women who ARE being denied the same sort of career opportunities because of their inability to interact as freely on a golf course or anywhere else. I think that boycotting the clubs is the wrong approach, however. They should be boycotting the corporations who make up the membership of these clubs. Those companies can deny the long-term business relationships that can form on a golf course, but a boycott isn't a legal proceeding and the public isn't as stupid as those CEO's think they are.

Just a thought.

Jennifer said...

Hey Genepool--nice to see you/hear from you again!

Wish we could be having this conversation face to face because we'd could really get into some things (and it'd be even better with a glass of wine) but let me clarify a few things and also comment on your comments (if I may).

I do believe that organizations have the legal, the constitutional right to form private clubs in which they restrict membership however they see fit. As long as they aren't accepting public money, then it's all fine and dandy, legally. So the KKK, the Boy Scouts of America, and Augusta National, should legally be able to discriminate however they want in terms of their membership.


Augusta is an interesting case in point. Because while the appear to be operating as a private club their public role in American golf is such that it's hard to argue that they are a small men's club dedicated to golf and the fraternity of men. They are an organization comprised of men around the U.S. who are captains of industry--who sit on boards and government offices (the former head of the US Olympic Committee was an Augusta member) and the influence of the Masters--the first major of the golf season--cannot be understated. The amount of power and influence and capital that flows through Augusta makes it hard to see it as a simple private club. If we agree that golf is an institution and not a sport and if Augusta National is one of the foremost clubs associated with this institution, then it's hard not to see that the practices of Augusta National have repercussions for Corporate America that affect and impact people around the world--and thus an attitude of discrimination among its members or in its club policy does not send a message that, in general, we as a nation should embrace.

Just because they have the right to discriminate in their membership doesn't make it right.

There is so much discussion right now about patriotism. And with that freedom. But when was the last time that we talked about equality--the value of equality as an American value? Or am I confusing us with France (Fraternite, Egqlite, Liberte)?

At any rate, at the end of the day what i think is that discrimination is discrimination. Whether it happens in private clubs or public courses, it strikes me as wrong.

We can go into all sorts of discussions about the Girl Scouts and various women's organizations and the OCA (Organization of Chinese Americans). But OCA, to take one example, while dedicated to working for Asian American concerns politically (they used to be dedicated to Chinese American issues but they've broadened their scope over the years to include a pan-Asian American focus--so has the JACL, the Japanese American Citizen's League--they work a lot with Muslim and Arab American communities) is open to non-Asian American members. And while it's hard for me to imagine a little boy wanting to joy the girl scouts given the pressure of sexism (can you imagine the teasing on the playground) the truth is, there is a comparable club--one may even argue a better club--and that's the Boy Scouts. So there is an avenue for the boy--and there's even a co-ed alternative--the Explorers club--that the Boy Scouts of America runs to be more inclusive, gender wise (of course, all these kids are straight as an arrow because heaven forbid a queer child become a member of their's not like there has ever been a gay boyscout .... right?).

Boycotting would be great if it worked--it often doesn't, becuase these organizations are so huge and the effort it would take to get people to support a boycott is huge--and most people could care less about golf (and I don't blame them) especially about elite clubs. So I doubt a boycott is going to help change things, either of corporations or of the club itself.

What could help is to change attitudes and the culture. To have anti-discrimination be a value that we embrace so that the social embarassment would be great, let alone the moral imperative to stop discriminating.

At the end of the day, what you have to ask is why--why do these men (in this case) want to keep things so unequal at Phoneix? Why does Augusta want to keep a male membership? And given the studies that show the direct link between women entering into higher positions of power (and it's also true for people of color) doesn't barring women and people of color from elite clubs feel a bit more like keeping them from the executive suite?

Kara said...

Executive women should definitely learn how to play golf. Men have been taking care of business on the gold course for years. Now that women make up a larger percentage of executives than they ever have, it's important for women to learn these skills as well.