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Masters Tournament gives journalists an opportunity to challenge antiquated Augusta policy

It may be the only thing that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Democratic president Barack Obama can agree on – except, perhaps, for the fact that winning November’s election would be pretty cool.

But the sports world seems to have accepted the casual sexism of Augusta National in ways even the toughest presidential contenders have not, tolerating the Georgia country club’s historic exclusion of female members because the storied organization hosts the biggest championship in professional golf – the Masters tournament, which underway this week.

I’m sure professional sports journalists are tired of this debate, which rolls around annually like clockwork. The issue got a bit more play this year, as one of the tournament’s top three sponsors, IBM, now has a female CEO, Virginia Rometty, creating an uncomfortable situation.

The club generally extends courtesy memberships to heads of sponsoring companies. But this time, one of those companies is run by a woman – itself a head-shaking, aren’t-we-past-this-already kind of turn.

Rometty herself has said nothing about the flap and Augusta isn’t even saying whether she was offered membership. The Wall Street Journal has reported she is attending the tournament; so much for taking a strong stand on women’s rights.

Still, even IBM, one of the stodgiest companies in the technology universe, has a more modern outlook than Augusta National, where English golfer Lee Westwood had the stones to joke about the whole issue in a comment reported by the Associated Press.

“What gender issue?” he reportedly said. “I’m a man.”

Privileged males joking about their success in excluding others feels so 1950s, but not nearly so retro as the attitude of the sportswriters and broadcasters benefiting from this club’s power and influence.

No matter how tiresome it seems sports journalists should be pressing this club to get right with history, constantly. If one of journalism’s primary duties is to serve as the voice of the voiceless, there can be no more voiceless group than the array of girls who might one day want to wear a green Masters championship jacket – if only they were allowed in the door to compete.

If ESPN can make something dull as the NFL draft appealing over multiple days, surely they could turn needling Augusta National over its retrograde membership policies into a fun game.

Institute a countdown clock noting how long the sports world has been waiting for the kind of equality women have gotten everywhere else about 50 years ago. Or list all the places women now have access to – including war zones (although not in combat yet), space travel and serving as rabbis – other than Augusta National.

In my fantasy world, CBS announcers would mention the males-only membership every time they came back from commercials. And when Augusta moved the tournament to some other channel, whoever got the rights next would do the same thing, too.

Don’t give me that jazz about sports being a place where social activism and equality issues aren’t debated, either. I’m convinced one of the greatest forces for equality in this country has been the sports world, where fans could see with their own eyes how talented and smart athletes such as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali really were.

Imagine if Tiger Woods were barred from the Masters by a “no colored people” policy? How many sports journalists would jump all over that story like a dog working a grease-covered bone?

The real enemy of equality isn’t evil people gathered in smoke-filled backrooms plotting on how to divide the world’s riches a little finer among themselves. Well, not always.

The real enemy, these days, is complacency. It’s accepting established unfairness because it takes too much effort, or costs too much, or upsets too many people to change it.

And all those who benefit from the Masters and good connections to Augusta National should take note; this is why discussion about these issues so often ends in protests and anger.

Because people with the power to do the right thing often don’t, until someone makes the pain of being wrong worse than the pain from getting it right.

So now the question remains, will sports journalists do their part?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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