BENNER: Women at Augusta National is no watershed moment

August 25, 2012

Let the record show that, in the realm of sports in Indianapolis, I have worked with and for women who are smart, organized, motivated, pragmatic and visionary. In other words, most of the qualities I lack.

Unrestrained by gender, they have risen to significant leadership roles. The success of those women is another positive byproduct of our sports initiative.

Indy’s most recent Super Bowl, judged by many to be the best ever, was led by a woman, Allison Melangton, who was ably supported by a cast of women in major positions of responsibility.

Via the Indiana Sports Corp., women are the point persons on such events as the NCAA Men’s Final Four (Susan Baughman), the NCAA Women‘s Final Four (Marcie Ahern), the Big Ten football championship (Ahern), the Big Ten men‘s and women‘s basketball tournaments (Andretta Erickson), NCAA swimming (Noelle Szydlyk) and NCAA basketball regionals (Julie Arnold).

Melangton, of course, soon will become president of the Sports Corp. replacing, yes, a woman, Susan Williams.

So, at the risk of alienating all these incredible women—and the one I’ve been sleeping with the last 39 years—I have to admit this: When it comes to the Augusta National Golf Club admitting its first two female members, I just don’t get what the big deal is.

Judging by the reaction, it seems to be right up there with women’s right to vote.

I see it as little more than a symbolic gesture, hardly along the lines of one small step for women, one giant leap for womankind.

Like many, I have had the pleasure of journeying to Augusta, Ga., for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National. It is a slice of heaven on earth.

But it was built by a bunch of good ol’ boys and sustained by a bunch of good ol’ boys who determined it would remain a place for good ol’ boys. That is why it is a private club.

Inviting two women in—even if one is someone famous like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—hardly makes it any more inclusive.

Certainly, I am delighted to have lived in a span when we have seen women take their rightful places in the uppermost echelons of American institutions. I just don’t consider Augusta National one of those.

Opportunities to participate in sports—thanks mostly to Title IX, co-written by Indiana’s own Birch Bayh—are greater than ever before, but the acceptance of women in sports isn’t where it should be.

Sure, the recent Olympics in London overflowed with American female success stories. From the pool to the beach to the track, USA women showed that they are the finest overall collection of female athletes in the world.

Now, we will mostly forget about them for four years.

Consider that the players on the gold medal-winning U.S. soccer team have no professional league to return to. Consider that even our own Indiana Fever star and three-time Olympic basketball golden girl Tamika Catchings plays in half-empty arenas for a fraction of the salary her male counterparts command.

Women’s professional tennis and golf have made inroads but still exist in a secondary world. The NCAA and individual institutions have invested millions of dollars into women’s basketball, yet most participants attract only a fraction of the media coverage given to men.

And if you want to look at an exclusive, male-only club, it would be the leadership of the most powerful institutions in American sport. The U.S. Olympic Committee? The NCAA? Professional sports leagues? Women occupy very few positions of prominence in those organizations, and none sit in the big office.

But at least a couple of women can now get a tee time at Augusta National. That may be progress, but I’ll really cheer when Condoleezza Rice runs the club.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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