By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 9, 2008 2:31 PM
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Martha Burk probably won't be watching the 72nd Masters from her semi-retirement home in New Mexico this week.
There was a time when she was as mesmerized by Tiger Woods' skill as any casual golf fan in America. But when Woods failed to speak out forcefully on the issue of Augusta National not admitting female members to its exclusive club five years ago, the woman who headed that effort stopped being all that interested in the fortunes of the No. 1 player in the game.
"It was not only Tiger, but all the top golfers," said Burk, former head of the National Council of Women's Organizations until her retirement from the group two years ago. "But Tiger is an icon, with a very big voice and a lot of influence in the golf world. And so are his sponsors. I was even told one of those sponsors was willing to run a commercial about breaking down another barrier, but Tiger chose not to do that.
"He could have done a lot. It was a spineless decision. If other athletes like Joe Louis back in the 1950s hadn't spoken up about racial discrimination in golf, Tiger Woods wouldn't be playing. I think he has an obligation to keep bringing down barriers. If someone else hadn't done it, he'd be caddying. It's something he could have and should have done. He has a daughter now. Phil Mickelson is the father of two daughters. They ought to be speaking out on this, but for whatever reason, they won't do it."
Woods has said in the past that he thought the club ought to admit women as members, but simply left it at that. Now that he and his wife Elin are raising a baby girl, perhaps one of these days he'll take a far stronger stand on the issue. So far in his career, he seems to be following the Michael Jordan make-no-waves-approach on social and political issues, rather than adapting the Arthur Ashe model of athlete activism.
That's certainly his prerogative; though it does fly in the face of the prediction his late father once made, saying that his youngest son would some day have a Gandhi-like effect on the world. At the moment, Woods seems far more interested in winning golf tournaments, becoming the first billionaire athlete and pumping money into his learning centers for disadvantaged kids. His foundation clearly does good work, but taking on controversial causes does not seem to be on his current agenda.
Burk, on the other hand, remains very much involved in the cause of opening Augusta National to female members. Five years after she led an ineffective protest in a parking lot two blocks from the club's Magnolia Lane front entrance, Burk and others involved in the Women on Wall Street Project are taking a different approach. They're targeting companies whose board chairmen, CEOs or other top executives are members of Augusta National, and filing class action gender discrimination suits on behalf of female employees of those companies.
The lead attorney for the Women on Wall Street project has been Cyrus Mehri. His Washington based law firm specializes in gender and racial discrimination cases, and he also led the highly successful effort to push the National Football League to increase the number of black head coaches five years ago.
Mehri was a guiding force in helping to organize the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which continues to monitor the NFL situation and also played a major role in the league adapting the "Rooney Rule," which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each head coaching vacancy.
Last year, Merhri and the Women on Wall Street Project reached a $46 million settlement with Morgan Stanley, the New York investment firm that had been the target of a class action suit filed by the project on behalf of eight female employees. Last week, another settlement, this one for $33 million, was reached with Smith Barney, a division of Citigroup, where Augusta National member Sanford Weill was the former chairman and CEO.
Both settlements contained a provision that the companies will no longer reimburse expenses related to entities such as Augusta National that base membership on race or gender. Burk estimates the Wall Street project will reach at least $200 million in similar settlements of lawsuits directed at other companies being targeted specifically because of their executives' membership in Augusta National, or sponsorship relationships with the club.
"That's the cost to discriminate," she said. "It comes as a direct result of Augusta National not admitting women. In my view, it's far more significant than standing in the middle of a muddy field a mile from the front gate. We have plans to greatly increase the visibility of the project next year. It is very likely this project will reach beyond Wall Street. Firms like Exxon-Mobil, one of the main sponsors of the Masters, General Electric, with members in the club, is not out of the realm of possibility."
Asked if Augusta National was feeling any pressure from within, she said "I don't think the club is capable of feeling pressure. But there are a lot of companies that see what's going on there and they're saying, 'We can't do this.' We can't be involved with an entity that discriminates.
"The CEOs who weathered the initial storm are not inclined to put pressure on the club. A lot of them have retired or nearing retirement. I think some of them did try to put pressure on the club in the beginning, but they were unsuccessful."
Burk's initial battle with Augusta National was waged with William "Hootie" Johnson, a South Carolina banker and then-chairman of the club. He retired from that position two years ago, and has been replaced by William "Billy" Payne, an Atlanta native who headed the committee that staged the 1996 summer games.
Though Payne has been viewed in some quarters are far more progressive than his predecessor, he has said in the past -- and said again on Wednesday -- he will not publicly discuss the club's membership policies. Burk said she and Mehri tried to arrange a meeting with Payne when he was named the new chairman, "but he never responded."
She said there are no immediate plans to try again and that "if he's supposed to be so progressive, we haven't seen that yet. It may take a few more years. What we have to do is make gender discrimination something people do not want to be associated with.
"To me, the most astounding part of the whole thing is that a company like Exxon-Mobil would never be a sponsor at a venue that discriminates on the basis of race. Yet they're willing to do at a place that discriminates on the basis of gender. They have to know it's wrong, and we know it's wrong, but they're still doing it."
At his annual state-of -the-Masters news conference on Wednesday, Payne announced several new initiatives to attract the younger generation to the joys of golf. One of them will include allowing children between the ages of eight and 16 to attend the tournament free of charge as long as they are accompanied by a ticket-holding adult.
Payne was asked during the session what a parent might tell a young girl walking through the gates when the child asked if they could join the club some day. His only response was to say, once again, he would not discuss anything to do with the club's membership policy, and end of story.
For Martha Burk and the Women on Wall Street Project, however, it's a story still to be continued.
Len Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.