January 12, 2009

Questioning the 'Don't ask, Don't tell' Policy

Questioning the tour's silence on fines and suspensions

It wasn't exactly a dead-solid confirmation, but when PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem acknowledged John Daly's six-month suspension last week in a Golf Channel interview, a few-dozen syllables of cryptic elaboration translated into a mile of uncharted ground. Heavy disciplinary measures rarely are necessary in Tour Pro Nation. Still, Finchem remains opposed to releasing any information or commenting on such matters, be it a fine for profanity or another unsavory episode from the Daly Planet.

Too bad Pacman Jones hits strip clubs instead of 7-irons. The image-conscious NFL can't publicize its dirty laundry fast enough, yet the Good Ship Birdie Putt clings to the fear of negative perception, worrying that a few nicks on its gold-plated image will affect corporate partnerships or trick Joe Sixpack into thinking pro golfers are heat-packing heathens.

The commissioner calls it policy, one that only recently came with an explanation. "We don't feel like people really care that much," Finchem said on the eve of the 2009 season-opener. "We don't get e-mails from fans saying, 'Why don't you tell us?' So we don't think there's a hunger for that information. Second, we don't have much of it [bad behavior], and we don't want to remind people about it. In our sport a bad thing is a bad word. If we had a conduct problem of any magnitude, we might have a very different attitude."

"I understand Tim's position. I also think releasing names would serve as a deterrent." —Joe Ogilvie

When it comes to smart men with large vocabularies and ample powers of persuasion, Finchem is a five-time major champion, but the last part of that defense baffles me. "I understand Tim's position," said Joe Ogilvie, whose term on the tour's policy board just ended. "I also think releasing names would serve as a deterrent. If you went public on suspensions or a positive drug test, the guy has to deal with it forever. If that's not a deterrent, I don't know what is."

Certainly, Finchem has pondered the downside of the secrecy factor. Suppose a prominent player tests positive in the spring and is suspended for tournaments such as the Players and U.S. Open. His absence would prompt immense speculation, at which point the tour would either have to reveal the cause or instruct the guy to undergo some phantom arthroscopic procedure. In a game built on honor and integrity, that won't fly.

"In the old days you could get away with not saying anything, but now everything becomes public knowledge," said 22-year veteran Billy Andrade. "The tour brass tells us that if someone fails a test, no one's going to know but the player and the tour, but it's gonna get out. Davis Love was one of the first guys tested, at the ATT National, and he said he read it on the Internet that night. Everything's out there, and I think it's good that it gets out."

There are really two separate issues in play here—one involving things such as slow-play fines and various inside-the-ropes situations, the other regarding more serious stuff. The tour's insistence on exercising wholesale control over the presentation of its product has long been one of its more oppressive traits. This heavy-handed nature is frequently the source of disillusionment among players who become suspicious of the tour's motives and bemoan the lack of communication between the corner office and the work force.

"For some reason, Tim is against the media knowing who is in slow-play jeopardy or who has gotten fined," said Stewart Cink. "I don't really know why. Those aren't discussions we've ever had."

Actually, it depends on who owns the ears. "I've heard Tim talk about it for a long time," Love said. "I think the little stuff accumulates, and [releasing it] would fuel a lot of negative publicity, but do those ticky-tack things really matter? Then there's the big stuff, which always comes out anyway. I've always said that if it's something like a suspension, we ought to be up front about it."

That doesn't necessarily mean you don't sweat the small stuff. "Maybe if things like slow play were made public, it would get people to stop doing it," Love added. "I mean, if a guy was asked 100 times about his $20,000 fine, he might finally start thinking about speeding up."

The tour's job is to act in the players' best interests, not to protect them or camouflage the infrequent situations that arise in all walks of life. From a big-picture perspective it is an organization with very few serious problems, and Finchem is certainly obligated to protect its reputation as the best-behaved sports league in this or perhaps any other nation. From there disclosure becomes a matter of doing what is right. It isn't a media issue, but a moral one.

Higher ground does not always require much of a climb. "It's an extremely player-friendly policy," Ogilvie said of the current situation. "There isn't going to be a lot of push-back from us." All the more reason to push forward.