Published March 31, 2012
Few things in life are more entertaining than watching rich people fight.
So here's hoping the 99 percent don't choose sides too soon in the renewed tussle over whether Augusta National Golf Club should admit its first female member. Lord knows, we all could use the comic relief.
Because the last time something along the lines of "Occupy The Masters" was attempted — in 2002 by Martha Burk, the still-humorless and then-chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations — it not only handed Augusta's old-boy network a crushing victory; it set the women's movement (or at least the golfing wing of the movement) back by a decade or more.
After months of bickering, no more than 50 people huddled around a stage in a scruffy city park set aside for the protest, a few blocks from the gates of where the Masters tournament was being played. The city, county and state police detail outnumbered protesters by at least 3-to-1. Fortunately, the only time authorities were called in was to move a man carrying signs that read, "Iron My Shirts" and "Make My Dinner" from in front of the stage.
The spark that has re-ignited the debate 10 years later is the ascension of Virginia Rometty to chief executive of IBM in January. Rometty is the first woman ever to hold the position, which, due to IBM's longtime sponsorship of the Masters, led to the company's previous four CEOs turning up on the membership rolls at Augusta.
Rometty, known to be an avid scuba diver but not much of a golfer, hasn't yet publicly stated a desire to join them. No problem. Burk has already made up Rometty's mind for her.
"Really, I don't think it's her responsibility," Burk told The Associated Press. "It's the board of directors. They need to take action here. They don't need to put that on her. They need to say, 'This is wrong. We thought the club was on the verge of making changes several years ago, and we regretfully end our sponsorship to maintain her credibility and the company brand.'"
The club may — as Burk suggested — or may not have been "on the verge of making changes several years ago."
In the early 1990s, not long after admitting its first African-American member, then-chairman Hord Hardin said a woman eventually would follow. He gave no timetable, vowing only that it wouldn't happen because of public pressure. When Burk tried applying it a decade ago, Hardin's successor, William "Hootie" Johnson said the decision wouldn't be made "at the point of a bayonet." To prove he was serious, Johnson freed all the tournament's sponsors from their commitments for two years, and the club picked up the tab.
Burk is back trying to find Augusta National's pressure point again, this time in charge of the NCWO's Corporate Accountability Project. So far, the club hasn't flinched, declining comment in accordance with its policy that membership issues remain private.
"I fear what will happen is that they will try to work out some sham solution with the company," Burk said in an interview with CNN. "The company has a huge responsibility here not to undermine its first female CEO. ...
"It does put IBM in a tough spot, but it's all their own making," she continued. "They've had nine years to help this club come into the 21st century. They've done nothing about it. Now, they're both in a bind. There's only one way to solve this — well, there are two. IBM can pull out and say, 'We want nothing else to do with this. These are not the values of our company.'
"Or the club can relent and say, 'We welcome women as members.' Those are the only two options that are viable that are going to wash with the public."
Not even close.
The first time the all-male membership flap raised its head, most people simply yawned. Polls at the time showed American evenly split on the issue. When the question was framed another way, whether it was all right for executives of companies with policies against gender discrimination to belong to Augusta, 52 percent responded "Yes," and 35 percent "No."
Most people apparently bought the argument that as a private club, members had the right to associate with whomever they pleased. Johnson took pains as the fight escalated to moderate his tone. By the time the tournament rolled around, he made Augusta National's membership rules sound no more exclusionary than the Girl Scouts.
What's been overlooked so far is that Rometty hardly needs help. She didn't get where she is by issuing veiled threats or relying on other people to fight her battles. If playing golf alongside a cadre of aging corporate chieftains on the manicured lawn at Augusta matters to her, she'll find a way to get it done. After all, she's got more than enough experience beating them head-to-head at much tougher games than golf.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.