Golf and Privacy

WHEN should privacy be a protectable right, and when should it be assailed as a shield for privilege, inequity, and discrimination? The issue is among those raised by the controversy over the country club near Birmingham, Ala., selected for this year's Professional Golfers' Association Championship tournament. Like many private golf clubs around the United States, the Shoal Creek Country Club has no black members, but has promised to admit some within a year. Even without an explicit policy of discrimination, many clubs create an atmosphere in which black applicants would feel unwelcome even if they met all financial and professional requirements.

Still, being denied the right to play golf on a particular greensward is hardly the same as being denied the right to vote, attend a public school, or use accommodations generally open to the public.

At issue, however, is a sports activity that attracts millions of fans and millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Golf's highest authorities recognize that use of facilities that have discriminatory membership policies taints their sport.

Privacy must include the right to do, in the truly private sphere, things that others disapprove of. But clubs that play host to tournaments of international interest are squarely in the public's view - a public ever less tolerant of discrimination.

Black leaders aren't pressing the government to pry open the doors of the Shoal Creeks. But they are urging the PGA and corporate sponsors not to condone exclusionary practices, by avoiding such clubs as the sites for lucrative and prestige-enhancing golf events.

That's a good approach. Even if some forms of bias are, for reasons of privacy, determined to be beyond the reach of law, discrimination diminishes a society and creates an environment conducive to more virulent forms of racism and sexism. The consciousness raising must continue. In time, all-white and all-male institutions will go the way of the dinosaur, and we'll be a better people for it.

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