Turning a Blind Eye

by Mark Lacter

It's one of those dilemmas that would get conjured up in a business school class. Say you've had a very successful partnership with a company that's being run by jerks that have stone-age ideas about women and minorities skirting the right side of the law but stirring so much fuss that you're starting to feel the heat. And yet, your shareholders and directors say that the partnership is too valuable to cut off, no matter how uncomfortable the association.

Such is the quandary faced by CBS, the longtime broadcaster of the Masters golf tournament. But it's more than that: it's the inadvertent unwrapping of a quite shameful gentleman's agreement that the sports and corporate world have abided by for generations in part for dollars, of course, but also out of golf's misguided allegiance to the old exclusionary ways.

For those who haven't caught up, the Augusta National Golf Club, which runs the Masters, was challenged by the National Council of Women's Organizations for not having a single woman member. Actually, the challenge was directed at the club's chairman, Hootie Johnson, who has made it clear over the years that Augusta is a private club and membership policies are nobody's damn business (which might also explain why the first African American member was not admitted until 1990).

The women's council, refusing to leave it there, began pressuring the tournament's TV sponsors IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup at which point Johnson suddenly cut off the campaign by announcing that next year's tournament would run commercial-free. Augusta National can do this because, unlike other sporting events, sponsors arrange deals directly with the tournament, not the network. (CBS and USA Network, which also broadcasts portions of the tournament, keep renewing their contracts because of the ratings the Masters generates each year.)

The next step is for the women's council to take its case to the network, which, not surprisingly, has had little to say about the controversy other than to affirm its intention to broadcast the Masters next year.

Of course it will. And even if CBS somehow decided to pull out, one of the other networks would be only too happy to pick up the telecast. Funny, really, when you consider the grief that the networks routinely receive for not having enough minorities in its prime time lineup. Yet when it comes to the perennial enshrining of a place that has been restricted for so long, no one is willing to say a thing.

That includes, by the way, Tiger Woods, whose marketing prowess has managed to lure both inner-city blacks and country club whites alike. But even Tiger knows not to offend Hootie. Apparently caught off guard at a press conference, he was less than his usual polished self. "They're entitled to set up their own rules," he said. "It would be nice to see everyone have an equal chance to participate if they wanted to, but there is nothing you can do about it."

Only later, at the urging of Nike, one of his major sponsors, did he put out a lip-serving statement on his Web site saying that Augusta National should admit women.

For Tiger and CBS and everyone else playing a role in the Masters including the millions of viewers who watch it the gentleman's agreement will remain in tact. The magnolias are just too breathtaking and the tournament just too important to be worried about a few little niceties like treating people equally once the TV cameras are turned off.

Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at mlacter@labusinessjournal.com.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.