Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Get ready for a messy Masters

By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

Over the weekend, the Masters slid further down the slippery slope that separates sporting event from spectacle. At this rate, by early April, Martha Burk will get her wish. It will be a full-fledged freak show.

The leader in the clubhouse isn't Tiger Woods any longer, but a 39-year-old repairman who loves poodles and fancies himself an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan - even though he wields as much real clout as the Wizard of Oz.

His name is J.J. Harper, and say what you will about him, even an opportunist needs an opportunity.

After driving over from his home in the middle of Georgia sometime during tournament week, he plans to set up shop as close to fellow demonstrators Burk and Jesse Jackson as the authorities in Augusta will allow. Harper's views might be foolish, but he's no dummy; he knows that without Burk and Jackson close by, he'd spark as much attention as a soggy match.

Harper became the unanimous choice to run the KKK's American White Knights chapter earlier this year, but that's because he also happens to be the only member. As a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, told the Daily News in New York, "If he shows up at Augusta with his two poodles, he'll have a protest of three."

Unfortunately, Harper also figures to draw a media following many times that, especially if he shows up in traditional KKK garb. That's because Burk did Harper's advance work for him. She suggested his endorsement proved that Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson and most of the members secretly yearned to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Harper, modeling bedsheets with the eyeholes cut out, too.

Though Burk must know that she is as responsible for Harper's 15 minutes of fame as anyone, it serves her agenda to pretend otherwise. Harper said Friday the only reason he even sought a permit to demonstrate was because Jackson planned to stake out a spot next to Burk. But the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations insisted the men who run the Masters were the real draw.

"We think it is not a surprise that Augusta National has attracted the support of the Ku Klux Klan," she told the Daily News. "After all, they are flaunting discrimination and the support of a group that is about discrimination is to be expected. But we have not heard from a single member of Augusta on this issue, and that includes the heads of some of America's largest corporations. Do they think their membership is more important than speaking out?"

Maybe they don't see the need.

Polls consistently show Americans evenly split on the issue, with 46 percent of respondents to an Associated Press poll conducted in November backing Augusta's current membership stance and the same percentage saying a club holding such a prestigious tournament should have female members.

And when the question was framed another way, whether it was all right for executives of companies with policies against gender discrimination to belong to Augusta, 52 percent said "Yes," and 35 percent said "No." Not everybody buys Burk's argument that belonging to an all-male golf club constitutes discrimination.

But she rarely worries what other people think. At the start of this fight, Burk knew so little about golf that she proposed moving the Masters somewhere else if Augusta refused to add a female member. And to her credit, she remained undaunted even after CBS and the PGA Tour ignored her much the same way the golfing CEOs have.

But after years spent lobbying behind the scenes on issues such as welfare reform, Social Security and women in the military, Burk received more publicity the day she was ripped by Johnson than she had been able to generate in a lifetime. And she will not let go of the spotlight without a fight.

At the end of an interview in a recent edition of The New Yorker, Burk was asked whether it was OK to exclude one gender in a private social setting. The bottom line sounds like something Harper might say.

"I myself have what I call the 'Girls' Dinner' - just some of the women in the women's movement, and we get together for dinner. Women in Congress do it, too," she began.

"Here's the difference. And it's interesting that you should ask this, and it's just now come to me, pretty clearly. It is because, when men get together, denigrating women is just a part of the social interaction. When women get together, denigrating men is rarely done. It's just not even on the radar screen.

"Even among the so-called strident feminists of the women's movement. We don't have anything to hide in that way," she concluded, "and men seem to."


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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