Column: By not acting, golf flunks own racism test
Now we know: Golf is a sport where you can aim a racial slur at Tiger Woods in front of a room of people and not get punished for it. In fact, in certain company, when the audience is in a party mood and thinks the world is not watching or listening, you might even get a few laughs.
If golf really and truly had ''no place for any form of racism,'' which is what the heads of the PGA and European tours said, then Steve Williams wouldn't be working this week. Instead he would be suspended or lying low somewhere.
If golf really had no place for racism, then the sport would have required that the caddie sacked by Woods in July do more, far more, than simply apologize, which he has done both to Woods in person and to the wider world in a begrudging, three-line statement. Why not, for starters, insist that he attend courses on race relations and respect before next stepping onto a fairway?
If golf had zero place for racism, there would be fewer apologists for Williams quickly turning the page. There would be more golfers like Fred Couples who were not prepared to dismiss Williams' comment at a caddies awards party as an ugly attempt at humor that failed. The U.S. captain for the Presidents Cup was reported as saying that if Williams was his caddy, he'd have fired him.
Woods said he and Williams ''met face to face and talked about it, talked it through'' Tuesday. Greg Norman, captain of the Presidents Cup International side, employed Williams in the 1980s. Both golfers said the New Zealand caddie is not a racist. ''No doubt about that,'' Woods said. ''No, not at all,'' Norman said.
Which is somewhat reassuring but also irrelevant here. That Williams, as far as ex-colleagues can actually know these things, does not hate people because of their skin color or ethnic background does not erase what he said. Suggesting it was out of character, that Williams doesn't habitually say such things, that the comment was reported out of context or that those who weren't there aren't qualified to have an opinion, does not make such slurs right or less painful to people who have long been on the receiving end of them. Woods called the remark ''hurtful'' and ''a wrong thing to say.''
''There are people out there who have heard these single statements over a number of years,'' said Kevin Hylton, author of '''Race' and Sport: Critical Race Theory.''
''These - if you want to call them micro-aggressions - build up, they aggregate, they accumulate to the (point) that they are affecting the psyche of many, many, many individuals,'' Hylton, a professor at Leeds Metropolitan University in northern England, said in a phone interview. ''For each statement that somebody tries to laugh off, that's another straw on the camel's back.''
What happens at the caddies dinners isn't meant to leave the room. Those who attend the annual parties do so on the understanding that what is said remains off the record. But, in this case, the rules made the whole affair look worse and raised disturbing questions. If not for British reporters who ignored the restrictions, would anyone have said anything? No matter the context, racial slurs should be taboo. So is this what top people in golf say to each other behind closed doors?
Surely not, one imagines. Even so, that Williams seemed to feel comfortable that he wouldn't be booed off stage or ostracized for his remark had the unfortunate effect of making his audience of fellow caddies and players look complicit, even if it wasn't. That impression was aided by Williams telling a New Zealand radio station that the evening was ''a fun sort of thing, and everyone laughed their heads off. So, you know, what you read is absolutely ridiculous.'' In that interview, Williams expressed no remorse at all.
''People can make all kinds of excuses and they can make all kinds of justifications about him and the audience, but what he said was totally unacceptable and he should pay a price for it,'' Chuck Korr, co-author of ''More Than Just a Game: Football v Apartheid,'' said in a phone interview. ''People have let him off the hook: 'He's just a good old guy who had a few too many drinks.'''
Some said Adam Scott, his employer, should have sacked Williams. But Scott was a victim here, too, unwittingly placed in the middle by something hateful someone else said.
This was a problem for the whole of golf, represented by top administrators, to take a stand on. The sport needed to make it loud and clear that racial slurs will have punitive consequences, to dissuade others from making them, too.
Golf has myriad rules to govern the minutiae of what to do, say, when the wind blows the ball or when it lands in water. But on this issue that mattered, it let itself down.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and European Tour chief executive George O'Grady condemned Williams' slur as ''entirely unacceptable in whatever context.''
But they took no action.
Golf has no place for racism, they said.
Williams put that to the test.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester.