For the next four days, the premier event in professional golf will be held in Augusta, Ga. For those who care — and about 12 million television viewers typically do at a given moment on the competition's final day — the Masters Tournament is, in its organizers' trademarked words, a "tradition unlike any other."
That history has its flaws, however. Well into the modern era, the club that hosts the tournament — Augusta National — withheld membership for Black people and women. Its sluggishness earned scorn and calls for boycotts, which it dealt with briefly in the early 2000s by simply forgoing TV ad revenue. More recently the club, while still an oasis of privilege, has worked to improve its image.
That background of influence and redemption could have put the Masters in one of the more powerful positions among major events to take a stand against a newly approved law in Georgia that makes it harder for people — especially nonwhite people — to vote. The National Black Justice Coalition went so far as to hope the tournament would be moved to another state.
But the Masters isn't going anywhere — not now, not ever. It is inextricably linked to its home. Any response to the voting law by those associated with the tournament has been in the form of words, not actions, and those words can most generously be described as measured.
Contrast that response with the one by Major League Baseball, which seized the chance to act aggressively. Baseball's summer All-Star Game and concurrent draft were to be held this year in Atlanta, but the league undid that as a result of the voting law and will spend mid-July in Denver instead. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the league "fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box," so the decision was "the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport."
The economic impact of an All-Star Game for a host city is typically around $70 million, so the change indeed carries leverage. But the switch should be relatively easy for baseball, which moves the event each year anyway and presents its World Series on the fly wherever it's been earned. And as critics have noted, the league expresses its values inconsistently; for instance, it's expanding its business dealings in China, a country that doesn't even bother to be sly about voter suppression.
It's true: In a less-than-ideal world, courage often comes with calculation. We still admire it where it exists.
There are those who think sports and politics don't mix. Perhaps ruing the tension of it all, they wish that athletes or celebrities or organizations wouldn't "tell us how to think." But that's a dodge. Individuals should be open to persuasion, always and from all corners, even though they ultimately must decide for themselves what to stand for.
This is not to say that boycott-type actions are always effective. For that, it helps to have two things in favor: a solid justification, and a proximal stake in the outcome.
In this case, the justification is there, and would be even if social equity weren't a leading concern of the era. Though Georgia's new, 98-page law is sometimes said — depending on who's talking — to address ballot "integrity" and not as restrictively as critics imply, an analysis by the New York Times "identified 16 key provisions that will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers."
The impact is there too, across America. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Georgia is one of 47 states (including Minnesota) with proposals to tighten access to the polls. That, to speak the obvious, is nearly all of 'em.
But proposals do stall, decisions sometimes do get reversed and actions in the world of sports sometimes do serve as catalysts. Pressure applied by the NFL against Arizona over a paid Martin Luther King Day holiday and by the NBA against North Carolina over rights for transgender people are examples. The business world also can hit pain points if it chooses: Georgia-based employers have been weighing in on the current controversy — Delta Air Lines most vehemently — and are facing criticism and reprisal at levels that seem to depend on how direct their message is.
For golf, a future test will come at a lesser event than the Masters: the Tour Championship, a season-ending tournament in Atlanta that activists also want moved. (Non-fans: Don't bother to seek a clear hierarchy of prestige among golf's events based on time of year or title. You shall not find.)
The PGA Tour, which runs that championship, plans no change. But it says: "Our intention to stage an event in a particular market should not be construed as indifference to the current conversation around voting rights."
Sometimes, though, not having indifference and not making a difference are the same difference.