Last week was not a good one for professional sports and its highly paid practitioners of children's games.
Once again we saw athletes swagger with a sense of entitlement and behave as if they are beyond not just the law but also any reasonable code of behavior. Those who market golf rightly point out that one of its strongest selling points is the image of its players. And while last week's public relations fiascos for the NFL and the NBA underscored that point, they also served as a cautionary tale of how quickly images can be tarnished. Mercifully lost in the furor of a dropped towel and thrown punches was the fact golf had a disturbing week of its own.
The fistfight at the Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game last Friday in which nine fans were injured was an inexcusably ugly incident that more than justified the season-long suspension given to Ron Artest. Nearly as shamefully, the implied sex between Terrell Owens and "Desperate Housewives" actress Nicollette Sheridan four days earlier during the "Monday Night Football" opening had nothing to do with sports and everything to do with crass promotion. It was sexist at best, racist at worst -- and, in the context of a sporting event, completely inappropriate.
On the same day ABC's standards dropped with Sheridan's towel, a rather remarkable event took place in St. Augustine, Fla.: Charlie Sifford became the first African-American to join the World Golf Hall of Fame. His touching speech was without a trace of the bitterness he has every right to feel for being shut out of the PGA Tour by its "Caucasian Only" clause for so long. Only one thing could have made Sifford's induction more memorable. Tiger Woods should have been there. His videotaped message failed to make up for the fact he opted for a big-bucks appearance fee in Asia instead. It would have been good for the image of the game if Woods had acknowledged in person the debt he owes Sifford and the other pioneers who endured vicious abuse to break the color barrier in golf.
Woods also did not help his image by publicly second-guessing the PGA of America for selecting Tom Lehman, instead of Woods' friend Mark O'Meara, as Ryder Cup captain. Reading between the lines it is clear Woods was saying he will remember his friend was passed over the next time the PGA wants something from him -- like an appearance in the Grand Slam of Golf or, perhaps eventually, the Ryder Cup.
Also last week came remarks by Paul Casey criticizing the selection of Lehman as captain because of his role in the over-the-top celebrations at the '99 Ryder Cup. Making matters worse, Casey also said the European players "hate" the Americans, a word for which Casey later apologized but not before losing his Acushnet endorsement deal. The words were especially offensive coming from a young player whose résumé does not justify such arrogance.
While the comments by Woods and Casey and Tiger's absence at the Hall of Fame hardly compare to the damaging acts in the NFL and NBA last week, they are reminders of how fragile image is. A tireless presence at the World Golf Hall of Fame was 75-year-old Arnold Palmer who restated a message he has always lived by, one all professional athletes -- not just professional golfers -- should heed: The game made you and the fans paid you. The power and the money bestowed on athletes are a privilege and not a right. Act accordingly.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine.