Tiger isn’t important. Augusta is.

I don’t really care about Tiger Woods and his sex scandals. Okay, salacious celebrity gossip is fun, but I’m not here to comment on his behavior at all. I’m only here to address the question, “Who cares if a golf club has an all-male policy?”

Let’s add, “Who cares if such a club is all white?” Most of us are pretty clear that racial segregation is wrong. Gender segregation would be equally wrong, right?

Yes, and here’s why: Exclusive private clubs like Augusta National, which hosts the 2010 Masters¬†Tournament and where Tiger will be making his “comeback” this weekend, are designed for people with advantages to share those advantages selectively with each other and their children. These clubs, located in every state, hand-pick who they will allow to join based on subjective social criteria. In fact, they claim that their social nature makes them exempt from any charges of discrimination.

But discrimination is exactly what’s going on at these exclusive private clubs: By hand-picking their membership, they create a homogeneous environment where the rich tend to get richer and the privileged more privileged. Their exclusivity sharpens lines between insiders and outsiders, emphasizing the distinctiveness and superiority of those on the inside. Symbolic boundaries like these feed and legitimate all class, race and gender inequalities.

Sociologists like myself talk about social capital, one’s network of connections, and cultural capital, one’s personal style. A man (and only a man) can get into Augusta if he has the right social capital and cultural capital (you have to know the right people and know how to behave.) If he does get in, the club will nurture his stock of both capitals: He’ll get to rub elbows with other important and powerful men, and the club’s social life can help develop his knowledge of golf, wine and so on. When members bring their sons along, they are preparing the next generation to take their lofty place in society.

We all know that social capital is helpful in careers. Every guide to job hunting advises readers to “work their connections.” Belonging to exclusive clubs like Augusta helps young people get a good first job and helps members of any age find better jobs and have more success.

There’s another important consequence of exclusive private clubs: When members bring their children along, it’s partly to serve up to them a pool of appropriate (read homogenous) romantic partners. Upper-class women have traditionally, through dances and other invitation-only activities, nurtured the white upper-class in this way.

Most important of all is that exclusive clubs like Augusta are breeding grounds for a toxic mentality. Sociologist Diana Kendall points out in her book Members Only: Elite Clubs and the Process of Exclusion:

Being apart from outsiders makes it possible for elites to feel superior to non-elites and to ignore the needs and concerns of those who are not within their own inner circle of social, economic and political elites.

The “elite think” that can grow in these environments is harmful to people in the U.S. and internationally. Having studied exclusive clubs in George W. Bush territory, Kendall illustrates “elite think” by quoting Bush as saying:

People have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.

Harmful mentality in a nutshell.

I am not arguing that women, and/or people of color, should be given the privilege of joining these clubs. Admitting a few token “others” would miss the point. The point is that what happens behind those elegant doors belies America’s goal of being an equal-opportunity meritocracy. What breeds at places like Augusta benefits a few and is harmful to many.

This isn’t a frivolous issue: Clubs like Augusta help to perpetuate inequalities of class, race, and gender. Sons learn harmful lessons from fathers in these environments. Don’t give them a “boys will be boys” pass–it’s little different than “whites will be whites.”

Above: Tiger Woods at the Augusta Golf Tournament. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/gomattolson/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Comments

  1. Agreed. I am similarly disinterested in Tiger’s sex scandals, and even less interested in the endless chatter surrounding them. That said, it’s unfortunate that it took “salacious celebrity gossip” to put the problem of Augusta into perspective — this isn’t his first time there, after all. And his previous visits were no less problematic.

  2. While we may not care about Tiger, he has been a hero to many boys and young men. I was troubled by his unwillingness to take on the sexism at Augusta and other clubs. He could have been a real hero for taking a principled stand and would have served as a role model for his fans. Now, it appears that his reluctance to address sexism in his profession is a reflection of his personal sexism and misogyny.

  3. Really well said, Jessica.

  4. I actually live in Augusta, and the argument about whether women should be allowed to join the Augusta National has been going on for as long as I can remember. When protesters applied for a permit to protest the Master’s, they had to stay a certain distance away from the gate so that they wouldn’t impede traffic going in.

    Master’s is the one week out of the year that our city really gets any tourism or national attention, and it’s disappointing to know that I live in a city with such a misogynistic and androcentric point of view. On a positive note, Augusta is having it’s first Gay Pride Event this summer, so perhaps Augusta, or Disgusta as it is colloquially known, is on the way to becoming more progressive.

  5. Judy Weiner says:

    Jessica

    Thanks you for such a timely piece. We were at the Masters practice round yesterday. Tiger was his same quiet (aloof) self – when other players talked to and joked with the crowd: A small thing, in a beautiful setting. It is amazing that at this time, women still cannot play or be members of this “exclusive” club. Let’s hope our daughters and granddaughters will experience a change not only in golf membership but in society as a whole – Keep your opinions coming – Judy

  6. Excellent post, Jessica — I hope that at least some in the mainstream press begin to take notice not only of questions about sex addiction but also of the long history of sexism.

  7. And they say America doesn’t have an Aristocracy…

    Brilliant article, thank-you!

  8. I am actually not surprised to learn that Tiger has said nothing about racism. The man has barely acknowledged that he is a person of colour, until Obama was elected and he decided to give a speech at the “We Are One” concert. He never speaks out about anything regarding social justice and instead claims that the golf clinics that he runs in impoverished areas are how he does his bit to give back. He reminds me a lot of a young Bill Cosby, who was content not to participate in the civil rights movement in favour of being considered a human being over a Black man.

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