That’s how most of the sports-minded celebrities at Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year ceremony on Tuesday felt about the controversy raging over whether the Augusta National Golf Club should admit women as members.
Standing in the shadow of a gargantuan Buddha statue that sits in the midtown eatery Tao, a few key insiders atthe ceremony said they don’t think athletic companies should step forward to take a stand on the private club’s exclusion of female members. As waiters passed silver trays of Chilean sea bass skewers jutting out of baseball bats or surrounded by tennis balls provided by the evening’s sponsors, some party-goers were reluctant to discuss how a public stand would affect the sneaker giants that write their paychecks.
Decked out in a black Gucci gown and a white Jean Georges stole, Serena Williams rattled on about how she’s interviewing pattern makers to help develop her new signature eveningwear line. But the Puma-sponsored athlete was unwilling to bite when the conversation shifted to Augusta.
"I’m all about women being better," she said, turning away. "I’ve decided not to discuss this. Ask Tiger [Woods]."
Comedian Robin Williams, who presented the Sportsman of the Year Award to his friend Lance Armstrong, was more forthcoming with his opinion. "It’s hard because everyone has done everything they can do. Pulling sponsors is the last card you can play," he said.
Williams said he expects the club to change its membership policy before that happens. Augusta National’s chairman Hootie Johnson has repeatedly said he will not do so.
"It’s the last vestige of the the ‘good-ole-boy’ network," Williams said. "It’s as if he’s saying, ‘You can’t come in.’ At a certain point, someone is going to say, ‘Uh sir, it’s 2002.’"
Williams joked about the likelihood of a sponsorless alternative. "They can’t go back to the way it was in the beginning, with two old guys chasing a ball around the green. ‘Oh, you got it in.’"
WNBA star Rebecca Lobo, who no longer has an endorsement deal with a sneaker company, said she doesn’t believe it would be in an athletic brands’ best interest to speak up. "It’s such a tricky situation and it’s very split. Obviously, I would like them to admit a woman, but I understand they are a private club working under their own rules."In addition, if they admitted a woman, it would be another millionaire and not an underdog, which Lobo said she would prefer. "I would rather see the athletic companies put more energy into Title IX, which is in danger," she said, referring to 1972 legislation that guaranteed equal opportunity in federally funded sports programs that might be restructured.
New York Jets player Damien Robinson, a Nike-sponsored athlete, said, athletic brands’ efforts would be better served to encourage girls to get into golf. But he thinks the companies will continue to support The Masters at Augusta with their dollars.
He said there is a way to change that, however.
"If Tiger took a stand, Nike might take a stand. But Tiger is trying to stay neutral," Robinson said.
Third-generation gold medalist Jim Shea Jr. opined: "The great thing about America is that everyone can do what they want to. I feel that people should fight cancer, save babies and not worry about what goes on in a private golf club. I don’t see how athletic companies speaking up would help."
George Plimpton, who made sports journalism a contact sport by taking to the playing fields and boxing ring to offer first-person accounts, said he expects Johnson "to cave." As for the question of athletic companies taking a stand, Plimpton said "boycotts [often the fallout from corporate statements] are a terrible idea. They can be such a disturbing force."
Plimpton recalled interviewing Johnson years ago for an article, and how his friend and golf writer Dan Jenkins wanted him to pull a prank. "What’s the name of that nightclub chain with all the girls?" Plimpton recalled. "Right, Hooters. Dan wanted me to go in there, shake his hand and say, ‘Hi Hooters, nice to meet you.’"
Plimpton opted for a more formal introduction, and recalled "feeling you would be removed from the room if you asked certain questions." That said, he never found out how members are selected or why women aren’t admitted. But Plimpton did some legwork on his own behalf.
"In the club, there is an 18th-century ballot box to blackball members," he said. "They don’t use it, but I did stuff my name in it just for the hell of it."
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