Brian Wilson: Sporting boycotts miss the point

The entrance to the Muirfield club, home of this year's Open Championship. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The entrance to the Muirfield club, home of this year's Open Championship. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Share this article
Have your say

THE answer, if one objects to all-male sports clubs, is to change the law, a job for politicians, writes Brian Wilson

The first time I watched an Open Championship was when my dad took me to Troon for a week. Arnold Palmer brought over the leading Americans and carried off the Claret Jug for the second successive year. A treasured memory.

Then, as now, Troon was a golf club that did not admit women members, so I suppose that I colluded in an endorsement of sexism, though nobody mentioned it at the time. Since then, the Open has been held at Troon five times and at Muirfield, which has the same policy, on six occasions.

The problem with sporting boycotts is that they can never be taken in isolation. If there is an ethical issue at stake in attending the Open at Muirfield, then it cannot be limited to one individual or a single event. Each potential attendee (whether me, whether Fergus Ewing) is required to make the same judgment call and then apply consistency.

I have no trouble with that. For the duration of the event, an Open venue is not a club governed by its own rules but is the hired property of the organisers. As simple as that.

The time to protest about Muirfield’s or Troon’s membership policy, if one wishes to, is when the Open Championship is not taking place, rather than when it is. Anything else is grandstanding.

Or if there was to be a campaign against awarding the Open to such courses, the time to launch it was when the Open was awarded to Muirfield – four years ago – rather than a couple of weeks before the first tee-off time. Perhaps a prolonged debate would have had some impact, which a belated boycott most certainly will not.

But then there is another difficulty. The Open Championship is the property of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews which “devolved” its running in 2004 to a new body called the R&A. If one was to take the logic of a boycott to its conclusion, nobody who is opposed to sex discrimination would ever attend an Open again – for as long as the Royal and Ancient remains an all-male membership bastion.

It puzzles me why anyone wants to maintain a single-sex membership policy or to be a member of such an organisation. However, there are many aspects of life and Scotland that I do not understand but manage to live with. These clubs operate within the law and if we want to change them, then the answer is to change the law, which is the remit of politicians.

The best that can be said about the Muirfield/Troon/Royal and Ancient policy is that it is openly-stated and ameliorated by method of implementation. There are clubs where such “rules” are unwritten but are enforced with discreet zeal. For example, any prospective attendee at Wimbledon might check out the policies of the All England Tennis and Croquet Club.

Certainly, one of the few British winners of a Wimbledon title still alive, Angela Buxton, has little doubt. She is Jewish and in 1955, won the women’s doubles along with Althea Gibson, a black American. Both then applied, as had been the way with Wimbledon champions, for membership of the All England club. When Gibson died in 2003, she remained on the “waiting list” and Buxton still is.

So should we boycott Wimbledon on the grounds that its custodians might be motivated by considerations other than merit and racial equality? Of course we shouldn’t. The same argument applies. The sport is what matters and its role in defeating prejudice and bringing people together is far more powerful than anything that goes on in bigoted committee rooms. Think Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon or Tiger Woods at Augusta.

International sport is so precious that it should only suffer political intervention when the policies being protested against impinge upon the sport itself. My first personal experience of making that judgment was in the late 1960s when the South African rugby team toured the UK and there was a great outcry, led by Tory politicians, about the wrongness of “bringing politics into sport”.

Of course, the exact opposite was the truth, since it was apartheid which determined the basis of selection – nothing to do with ability.

So it was politics which had introduced discrimination into sport – and, as it proved, boycotting South African sport on these grounds proved massively influential in ultimately changing the politics.

To digress, that episode had an unexpected personal outcome. There were massive demonstrations throughout the UK and police handled them differently in each place. My own brief encounter with martyrdom occurred in Aberdeen where the policy was to allow demonstrators on to the field of play and then arrest us.

The first 100 were charged and duly fined £15 a head. Some mad optimist wrote to John Lennon asking him to do a concert to help raise the £1,500 – quite a sum in those days. Astonishingly, he wrote back saying that he did not have time to do a concert but here was a cheque for £1,500 – which is how John Lennon came to pay my fine!

I think the only other boycott I advocated (unsuccessfully) was when the SFA agreed to play a friendly match in the Santiago stadium which, just a few years earlier, General Pinochet had used for the torture and killing of his political opponents.

Again, I found it impossible to separate the degradation of sport from the politics, a view which did not endear itself to the blazers of Scottish football.

In general however, I have always thought of sporting boycotts as dangerously self-defeating. The prime example was when the Americans tried to wreck the Moscow Olympics of 1982, ostensibly in protest over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Americans had plans for an “alternative Olympics” which their own black athletes effectively vetoed.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Afghanistan, it had nothing to do with sport. And the moment sporting boycotts are used as political weapons for reasons unrelated to sport, then the whole of international sport collapses. Everyone would always have a reason to boycott somebody else.

Alex Salmond watching Muirfield on the telly rather than being disgorged there by ministerial car hardly ranks in that category. But it should encourage some thought about the line that divides political gestures from principled stands. Let’s celebrate the Open Championship without distraction – then watch carefully how the political commitment to gender equality is subsequently pursued.

Time and again, sport has mocked prejudice and discrimination in the most effective way possible – from Jesse Owens, through Arthur Ashe to Tiger Woods.