Men-only sports clubs: Game over?

The Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to admit women before the Masters tournament next April has galvanized men from coast to coast and outraged women's groups. The private club in Augusta, Ga., finds itself in the midst of a very public dispute: Even The New York Times weighed in on Monday in an editorial that argued that Tiger Woods should skip the Masters and two top CEOs should resign their memberships if the club remains all-male. Rarely have so few done so much to divide so many.

Some men simply can't understand why it is a problem if a powerful and prestigious 300-member golf club refuses to admit female members. It's a private club's private business, argues Augusta National's chairman William "Hootie" Johnson, and to hear him tell the story, it's really the guys at the club who are being discriminated against.

If you don't agree with his logic, then he has results from a poll he hopes will win you over. Stung by a barrage of letters and criticism from women's groups, Augusta National hired a Washington research firm to gauge public feelings about its men-only policy.

The results released last week show a majority of the public doesn't have a problem with the club. But some analysts find the poll flawed and biased. Consider this question posed to 800 adults: "Just like single-sex colleges, the Junior League, Boys and Girls Scouts, Texas Women's Shooting Club, sororities and fraternities and women's business organizations, Augusta National Golf Club has the right to have members of one gender only." Is it any surprise that 74 percent of those polled agreed?

Mr. Johnson sees private clubs as family business,and internal operations as private. I agree - as long as these organizations don't use public funds, or afford their members an undisputable advantage in the business world. Neither public nor corporate business should be conducted in private clubs, nor should they host public, televised events.

Yet business meetings are to country club fairways what basketballs are to hoops. Without the former, the latter is not as much fun. The moment that these private clubs offer males exclusive access to powerful people and venture capital, they have tilted the fields of competition, because men tend to be the top corporate decisionmakers and the biggest venture capitalists.

Truth is, men often gather or socialize for business purposes after hours in spots where women can't, or won't, follow. If they close big deals, their bosses simply overlook the formidable advantages it creates.

Ten years ago, while working in Houston as a national correspondent for a major newspaper, I noticed a high-level financial services executive in my chic apartment building stealing away at night for business meetings.

Turns out he was headed for an upscale strip club, in which he wined and dined clients. Playing while at work and working while at play is a time-honored Texas tradition. Some high-end men's clubs even had business centers with fax machines, phones, copiers, and conversation areas.

I wondered what happened to women at my neighbor's company who might balk at entering such an environment? For that matter, what would happen if a male executive refused to follow the unwritten corporate mandate to entertain in such places?

The next week I marched into the Gentlemen's Club to order lunch and, I hoped, get a great story. I didn't get even one high heel in the front door. "Women aren't allowed inside without a man to accompany them," the manager informed me. "As far as we know, you could be an irate wife who's looking for her husband."

The $212.5 billion-a-year sports industry is now reportedly larger than the US automotive sector. Professional female tennis players make 67 cents for every dollar a male tennis player makes - the number drops to 36 cents for women professional golfers. These statistics suggest two things: Sports is big business, and gender equity has not been achieved yet. There's one way to resolve this situation so everyone wins. Johnson and his Augusta golfing circle could create a no-working zone and prohibit members from conducting any business activities on site. That would make me feel better.

Perhaps it's best for all if the distinguished male membership in Augusta would decide to open up the doors, not because they have to, but because they wish to make a point to fledgling democracies in the Middle East, where US diplomats are working diligently to establish rights for women. The Augusta National Golf Club could aim for a shot in US history by delivering a clear message at an opportune time: In this country, we accommodate differences and support democratic values even when the group in power has to give up privileges.

We walk our talk and we, as a people, mean business. Now that's a bombshell that would disrupt any terrorist cell.

Linda S. Wallace, a former journalist, is a cultural coaching consultant in Philadelphia and author of the advice column 'The Cultural Coach.'

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