Column: Hootie Johnson Leaves Behind a Complicated Legacy

William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, has died at age 86.

Johnson is one of only six men to serve as chairman of Augusta National, and while The Masters reached new heights during Johnson’s tenure, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.

Under his tenure as chairman from 1998-2006, Johnson oversaw the lengthening of Augusta National as new technology allowed golfers to hit the ball further, ensuring the course remained a tough test for the world’s best players each year on the second weekend in April.  Johnson also helped to keep the field truly elite, making changes to the tournament’s qualifying procedure.

Johnson helped bring the Masters to a wider audience, as he expanded television coverage of the tournament to the entire 18-hole course for the first time–it was previously contained to only the final 10 holes–and reopened the waiting list for tournament badges for fans for the first time since the 1980s.

But Johnson was also in charge of Augusta National during its biggest controversy:  the highly publicized disagreement with Martha Burk over the club’s policy not to allow female members.

In 2002, Martha Burk, who was chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote a letter to Johnson suggesting Augusta National’s male-only membership policy was sexist.

In Johnson’s response, which played out publicly, he claimed the club had the same rights as any private club, citing the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts and sororities/fraternities as examples of organizations which allowed membership to only one gender.

However, Johnson’s tone in his response was less than subtle, calling Burk’s letter “offensive and coercive,” and saying the club would not change their policy “at the point of a bayonet,” and they would not be “bullied, threatened or intimidated.”  The response sparking a national controversy over the issue, with Burk leading protests against the club, including one near the course property in Augusta during the 2003 Masters.

Johnson, speaking as the public face of the Augusta National membership, certainly came across as stubborn, and many saw the response as misogynist and discriminatory.  This characterization of Johnson is ironic, because his personal history shows a much more progressive man than the one portrayed in 2002.

Johnson, a former running back at the University of South Carolina, worked as a banker in Greenwood, South Carolina before rising to prominence in the business world as an executive at Bank of America before becoming chairman at Augusta National.

As a businessman, Johnson served as co-chairman of a committee that developed a plan to desegregate state colleges and universities in South Carolina, and was a trustee at historically black Benedict College.  As a banker, Johnson often appointed both women and African-Americans to his corporate boards in an era before such appointments were common, and loaned money to minorities when others would not.  He was also the first prominent businessman to suggest removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.

U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) defended Johnson to USA Today in 2002:  “His whole life has been just the opposite of what he’s being portrayed.  He’s always come down on the side of access and equality. He’s not a prejudiced person in any way. He is not deserving of this controversy.”

Johnson, who was a member of Augusta National since 1968 after joining at the invitation of club co-founder Bobby Jones, eventually resigned as chairman in 2006 at age 75, becoming chairman emeritus; the club admitted two female members, Condeleeza Rice and Darla Moore, in August 2012.

Augusta National and The Masters certainly grew during Johnson’s term as chairman, but after serving in a role where most haven’t been a household name–current chairman Billy Payne is still probably better known among non-golf fans as the CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics–he’ll likely be most remembered for the standoff on Augusta’s membership policy, making his legacy complicated as he is remembered in the coming days.

 

 

Chairmen of Augusta National Golf Club:
Clifford Roberts, 1931-76
William Lane, 1976-80

Hord Hardin, 1980-91
Jackson Stephens, 1991-98
Hootie Johnson, 1998-2006
Billy Payne, 2006-present

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Column: Rules Unfairly Rob Thompson of LPGA Major Title

When So Yeon Ryu, the winner of the LPGA Tour’s first major championship of 2017, says she doesn’t feel right about how she won, you know there’s a problem.

In Sunday’s final round of the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson left the 12th green with a three-shot lead, strongly positioned for her second title in the event.

Then, the LPGA dropped a bombshell.

Rules official Sue Witters informed Thompson that she was being assessed a four-shot penalty after the LPGA had deemed that Thompson misplaced her ball when marking it on the 17th green in Saturday’s third round.

The violation had been discovered only after a television viewer, presumably watching Saturday’s round a day later on DVR, emailed the tour about the potential violation, after which officials reviewed video and penalized Thompson.

After the penalty, Thompson fought through tears to play the final six holes in 2-under, making three birdies including one on the final hole to reach a playoff.  She lost the sudden-death playoff to Ryu, who won her second major.

The violation itself is a two-stroke penalty, but given the circumstances two additional strokes were added for Thompson signing an incorrect scorecard in Saturday’s round.

Thompson, who fell from three ahead to one behind the lead, was understandably shaken by the sudden turn of events.

“Is this a joke?” Thompson asked, and after Witters confirmed she was serious, Thompson replied, “This is ridiculous.”

The golf community responded similarly to Thompson, with many, including the sport’s biggest name, showing their displeasure with the ruling on Twitter:

Based on the rules as written by the USGA, the ruling was correct.

“I can’t go to bed tonight knowing I let a rule slide,” Witters said. “It’s a hard thing to do, and it made me sick, to be honest with you.”

But the way it played out was certainly unfair, and begs the question whether some changes may be necessary.

Tiger Woods and the other professionals above have a point:  no other sport’s fans have the ability to call in (or, in this case, email in) potential violations they have seen from home on the event’s television broadcast.

This has an easy solution:  the PGA and LPGA Tours and other sanctioning bodies whose events are televised should place a rules official in the television truck, where they can watch the broadcast for potential violations and request replays or additional camera angles if necessary.

The potential for a fan at home to influence the officiating of an event, especially 24 hours later, is simply nonsensical.

The rule on signing an incorrect scorecard should also change in cases where the player has no intent of improving their score.  Penalizing Thompson, or any other player, two shots for not writing down a penalty that wouldn’t be discovered for another 24 hours is totally unfair to the competitor.

The original rule for signing an incorrect card was if the incorrect score was better than the player’s actual score, the player was disqualified.  Fortunately for Thompson, instead of being disqualified as she would have been with the original rule, a 2016 rule change made it a two-stroke penalty.

But that’s still unfair.  Thompson had no intent in signing an incorrect card, because she had no idea a penalty in her round was even possible.  Penalizing her for a review initiated by the LPGA upon a fan’s suggestion is completely unfair.

Enforcing such a penalty after 12 holes of the final round have been played is even more ridiculous.

Thompson entered the final round at 13-under par, leading Suzann Pettersen by two shots, and played from ahead through the first 12 holes.  Had she started the final round at 9-under, chasing the lead instead of protecting it, she would have played more aggressively to try to catch (and pass) the leader.  Instead, her strategy was different for two-thirds of her round because she had no clue she was about to be penalized.

There is no way this can be considered fair.  Knowing the “time and score” is immensely important for participants in any sport.  Reviewing a play in a “stick and ball” sport later in the game is unreasonable, which is why reviews in such sports can’t happen after the next play has begun.

In golf, it is legal for tournament officials to enforce a penalty from Saturday during Sunday’s round, but once the final player to finish the final round signs their scorecard, the tournament is considered over, so a penalty in Sunday’s round cannot be added on Monday.

For the fairness of all participants (the other players have a right to know where their opponents stand), it should be written into the USGA rules that a penalty cannot be added once the player has started their following round.

My proposal of a rules official in the television truck and no ruling suggestions from fans would help here too, because potential violations would come up immediately instead of hours later or the next day.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent memory penalty strokes have come into play late in a major championship.  In the final round of last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, Dustin Johnson was notified on the 12th hole that he may or may not be penalized a stroke for his ball moving on the fifth green–the decision could only be made once officials and Johnson sat down with video evidence after the round–and had to finish the round not knowing if he was, for instance, leading by one stroke or tied.

In Johnson’s case, the penalty ended up not mattering, as he finished at 5-under, four shots ahead of the nearest challengers at 1-under, and won by three after the penalty dropped him to 4-under.

Thompson wasn’t as fortunate.  As a result, the 2016 U.S. Olympian still had a chance to win, which she narrowly missed, but was robbed of her fairest chance to win one of the biggest events in women’s golf.

Now, as the sport of golf enters its biggest event this week at The Masters, a black cloud hangs over the sport, with a real question of how fairly its rules may play out in the event of similar circumstances on its biggest stage at Augusta.

Column: The NFL Overtime Rule Needs Changing

For years, fans, players, and the media have all wondered when we could see a Super Bowl end in overtime.

Finally, in the game’s 51st edition, it happened.  Then, after just 3:58 elapsed on the game clock, it was over, without the Atlanta Falcons even possessing the football.

The New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to score a game-tying touchdown and conversion with :57 left in regulation, leading to the historic extra period, played under the NFL’s overtime rules.

Those rules gave the Patriots an unfair advantage simply because they won the coin toss.  Unlike college and high school football, in the NFL the team that gets the ball first in overtime can win the game with a touchdown.

The league justifies this by saying both teams are guaranteed to possess the ball unless the first team scores a touchdown by driving all the way down the field after the extra session’s opening kickoff.

And yet, that’s exactly what the Patriots did, going 75 yards in eight plays to score just 3:58 into the overtime period, without the Falcons ever having a possession.

As a result of these rules, the team that wins the coin toss almost always takes the ball, with a few rare exceptions (including, once, the Patriots), because they know their chances to win are enhanced by possessing the ball first.

This doesn’t make sense.  While the rule is better than it used to be–until 2010 the first team to score in any way won, meaning the first team with possession could win with a field goal–it is still preposterous that one team or the other got an advantage in the Super Bowl based on whether a coin landed on heads or tails.

What I would like to see would not be a major overhaul:  the NFL could simply require the team that loses the coin toss to also get a possession.  To use last night’s game as an example, after the Patriots took a lead that would have likely been 35-28 after an extra point, the Falcons would have had a chance to match.  Had they not scored, the game would be over, or if they scored to tie, then the next team to score would win.

While tweeting my discontent with the overtime rule after the game’s conclusion, multiple users replied to me that the Falcons deserved to lose because they led by 25 late in the third quarter and didn’t score over the last quarter and a half.

But that doesn’t change the flaw in the overtime rule.  If the Falcons had won the coin toss and marched down the field and scored, wouldn’t it be right for the Patriots to get a possession after fighting so hard to tie the game and reach overtime?  (That scenario happened to the Packers, last season, as I mentioned here.)

Furthermore, in a hypothetical back-and-forth game that both teams play all 60 minutes at a high level, isn’t it only right that both teams get a possession, instead of one having the ability to win on the first possession because they won a coin toss?

This rule has been a problem for a long time, and I’ve been a critic of it for as long as I’ve been watching pro football.

Now, as football enters its offseason, if the occurrence of one team being robbed of a chance to possess the ball in a historic Super Bowl overtime doesn’t get the league to change the rule, nothing will.

The overtime problem in the NFL has gone on far too long, and now the rule gave one franchise a disadvantage as it tried to win its first Super Bowl title.

It’s long past time for a change.

Column: NASCAR May Be Digging Its Own Grave

Just weeks ahead of the 2017 season, NASCAR is, yet again, changing its race format, continuing to move further away from the simple rules the sport was built on.

As NASCAR continuously makes their product more complicated, their popularity continues to statistically decline, begging the question of how strong a correlation may exist between NASCAR’s format changes and its falling ratings and attendance.

The Changes

The “enhancements,” as NASCAR has branded them, concern dividing races up into segments, something NASCAR hopes will create more exciting racing throughout the entire distance, alleviating the so-called “mid-race lull.”  The enhancements are the end result of a lengthy collaboration between NASCAR executives, teams, drivers, and racetracks in an effort to fix some of the complaints that have been heard within the industry.

Each race will now be divided into three “stages.”  After the first two stages, the top 10 are awarded points (10 for 1st, nine for 2nd, and so on).  Points will continue to be awarded to the full field (1st through 40th) at race’s end.  Points will no longer be awarded for leading a lap, or for leading the most laps.

Stage wins will earn a driver one bonus point for the “playoffs”–no longer called “The Chase”–and race winners will earn five bonus points.

The playoff format is mostly the same (four rounds of 16, 12, eight, and four drivers), with one exception:  the bonus points acquired through the season will be added to each driver’s total at the beginning of each round of the playoffs (previously, bonus points only applied to the first round).  The playoffs remain a “win and you’re in” format, and the finale at Homestead remains a four-man battle with the highest finisher winning the series championship.

Bonus points will also be awarded in the playoffs for each driver’s placement in the final regular season standings:  15 for 1st place, 10 for 2nd, eight for 3rd, seven for 4th, and so on down to one for 10th.

Pros and Cons

The cons of this system are obvious:  fans are going to be confused trying to figure out what in the world is going on.

But like anything else, this system has multiple pros and cons.

Positives include an intermission-like caution period after each stage that will allow competitors and fans alike to catch their breath, while broadcast networks can air more commercials during the break instead of during green-flag racing.

Also, there is now more incentive for drivers who know they are in the playoffs to win more races or stages, since those bonus points now carry over all the way until the Round of Eight in the playoffs.  Consistency will be better rewarded, even while a strong emphasis is still on winning races.

Besides the confusing nature of the changes, another major con is that a race winner could hypothetically only earn 40 points (finishing 11th or worse in the first two stages then winning the race), while a driver who wins the first two stages and then finishes second would earn 55 (10 points for Stages 1-2, 35 for second place).

“Wait Until You See It On The Racetrack”

Everyone on stage at Monday’s announcement, naturally, praised the changes as something that would make NASCAR exponentially better.

“Wait until you see it on the racetrack,” said 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. “If you are watching right now, please trust us. When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

And, yes, the media member in me is moderately eager to see the changes in action, as they should theoretically create more exciting moments within each race (i.e. there are now three “finishes” instead of one).  But as a lifelong fan, I’m not sold.

Keselowski is probably right about more excitement throughout the entirety of the race, but the complex nature of the format will likely be a problem for a sport that is already in decline.

NASCAR’s Struggles

NASCAR’s popularity, as judged by television ratings and attendance figures, has been in decline since its peak in the mid-2000s.  Television ratings, which consistently rose from the 1980’s until the mid-2000s, have consistently dropped gradually since.  In 2016, the majority of the races on the schedule either hit all-time ratings lows or their lowest marks in 15-plus years.

Attendance has also plummeted over the last decade, with the International Speedway Corporation (which runs 12 NASCAR tracks) reporting a 49 percent drop from in attendance revenue from its peak in 2007, and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (which runs eight tracks) dropping 46 percent from its 2008 peak.

While both marks were at their peak just before the economic recession of 2008 and dropped like numbers in most other industries when the recession hit, they have continued to fall ever since.

This Won’t Fix NASCAR’s Problems

While the country slowly recovered from the recession, NASCAR has tried to appeal to a younger demographic with continuous rules and format changes.  The changes have resulted in many old-school fans giving up on the sport, and have not drawn enough young fans to the sport to offset the departures.

It’s no secret that NASCAR’s existing fanbase leans conservative, and as a result often resists change.

I’ve met fans over time that aren’t particularly keen on changes like The Chase, green-white-checkered finishes, eliminating the “race back to the caution” (although that one was wholly necessary for safety reasons), and even restrictor-plate racing (though most find it exciting).  Some of these have tolerated the changes and continued to watch, while others have left the sport.

Before now, these changes haven’t been overly complicated.  The “Chase Grid” format, which eliminates four drivers each round until a four-man winner-take-all finale, was the most complex change before yesterday’s announcement.

But this edition of rules changes is taking complicated to another level.  And remember, while I do know some very intelligent people who are diehard NASCAR fans, this isn’t exactly a fanbase known for an abundance of doctors and lawyers.

When fans turn on the Daytona 500 in just one month, many will likely not understand the new format.  Some will be patient and try to understand the changes.  But others will get frustrated, not recognizing the sport in which they used to watch their heroes like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. compete, and turn the race off.

And while these changes are aimed at the casual fan (with the thinking generic sports fans would better understand an event divided into periods, like football/basketball/hockey, and the term “playoffs” instead of “Chase”), I wouldn’t think they would have any more patience than the diehard fans when they turn on a race and get confused.  In fact, they may have less patience and change the channel even faster.

If people stop watching the races, it doesn’t matter how exciting the races are, because the sport will fizzle out.  NASCAR’s thinking is that more exciting racing is the answer, as it would potentially attract new fans and start to grow the sport once again.

But, at least from my perspective, the racing has always been exciting.  Some at Monday’s announcement talked about creating more “moments,” spread out over the three-plus hours of a race, but that has never been necessary in other sports, and isn’t in NASCAR either.  The main draw is to see who wins the race, at the end of 500 miles, not who makes it to the one-third mark first.

Furthermore, whether the Falcons or Patriots lead the Super Bowl after a quarter, they will have no advantage (besides the lead with 45 minutes of football left) as far as winning the game.

NASCAR was at its most popular when it was without all the bells and whistles that they will now execute in the running of each race.

Now, with the gimmicks continuing to add up, I’m afraid the number of fans who bid farewell will add up too.

While the “NASCAR as we know it” from the past ceased to exist yesterday, I fear it will result in “NASCAR as we know it” for the future ceasing to exist as well.

 

 

 

Column: “WakeyLeaks” Is Disgusting–And Far From Over

Who knew Benedict Arnold was a Wake Forest broadcaster?

Wake Forest football fired radio analyst Tommy Elrod, a former player and assistant coach with the program, on Tuesday after an investigation found he had provided details of the team’s game planning to opposing teams, dating back to 2014.

A scandal that has already made Elrod’s name equivocal with Arnold and Judas Iscariot on the Winston-Salem campus has been nicknamed “WakeyLeaks,” and while it is more than baffling why Elrod undermined the Wake Forest program this severely, this situation is far from over.

A Mole’s Motivation

In the immediate aftermath, the biggest question is, simply, “Why?”

Elrod played quarterback for the Demon Deacons from 1993-97, and became a graduate assistant on coach Jim Grobe’s staff in 2003, working his way up the coaching ladder and becoming quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator.

His tenure on the coaching staff included Wake Forest’s improbable run to the 2006 ACC championship, and Elrod was a key to the relative success of four-year starting quarterbacks Riley Skinner and Tanner Price.

When Grobe resigned after the 2013 season, Dave Clawson was hired as the new head coach, and did not retain Elrod.  Elrod’s situation was not unique, as Clawson brought most of his staff from Bowling Green with him to Wake Forest, and only retained two coaches from Grobe’s staff (and none tenured more than two years).

Elrod, however, remained involved in the program as a radio broadcaster, and continued to have access to the teams practices, film, and game plans.

Elrod, a 41-year old Wake Forest lifer, did not necessarily fit the profile of the typical double agent, but must have clearly had some strong motivation.  It is possible Elrod was disgruntled about not being retained on Clawson’s staff, even with such personnel moves being normal during a coaching transition.

However, the more likely motive for Elrod’s treachery is money, assuming the possibility exists that other football programs could buy the game plan information Elrod was leaking.

Many who know Elrod are stunned at the revelation of his disloyalty to Wake Forest.  In various forms of media, Elrod has been described over the last 24 hours as a family man, active in the Winston-Salem community including charity work.  Skinner told ESPN Elrod was a “stand-up character guy.”

How Much Harm Has Been Done?

As an admitted Wake Forest fan, I naturally find Elrod’s alleged actions as senseless and beyond disappointing.

But the frustration of the fan base does not even scratch the surface here, when you consider the hours and hours of hard work done by the coaching staff and especially the student-athletes in game preparation, only to be undermined and cheated out of a fair chance come gameday. Wide receiver Marshall Williams’ reaction on Twitter (below) is likely similar to that of many current and recent Wake Forest players.

(Warning: strong language)

And beyond any emotional hurt done by the sedition, consider how rough a game football is, and how much knowledge of a team’s game plan could literally cause harm.

For instance, quarterback John Wolford has been sacked 91 times over the last three years, including several instances when he was injured by a sack.  How many of Wolford’s injuries might have been caused because the opposing defense knew the play and went after the quarterback?  There’s no way to know an exact number, but this shows how wide the scope of this could potentially be.

The Fallout

That said, this case is not over.  For one thing, a lawsuit one way or the other between Elrod and the football program is very possible, and Elrod has already hired an attorney.

But beyond that, when an informant provides inside information, someone else is the receiver of such information, and that is where this could get messy.

Wake Forest football is the victim, as one of their own breached the trust he had been given by those within the program.  But the opponents who took the information are just as guilty as Elrod, especially if money changed hands.

Any possibility of a cash flow for exclusive intelligence, a possibility which certainly exists here, should be investigated by both the ACC and the NCAA.  Wake Forest acted quickly in firing Elrod; hopefully the ACC and/or NCAA will be as efficient in getting to the bottom of this controversy.  (The ACC released a statement late Wednesday promising “due diligence” to the case to “protect competitive integrity.”)

One opponent who is almost certainly involved in some way is Louisville.  The investigation into a potential data breach within the Wake Forest program began after documents were found at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium the day before the Demon Deacons’ game with Louisville that contained information on plays Wake Forest had not run before.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who is no stranger to controversy, denied any knowledge of the situation at the time, and again on Wednesday, calling it simply a “Wake Forest issue.”  But with strong evidence that Elrod was working as an informant from the Wake Forest side, Petrino will have some questions to answer.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said Wednesday that while Elrod did speak before the game to offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway, who coached alongside Elrod at Wake Forest in 2011-12, Louisville used none of that information on their way to a 44-12 win.

In addition to Galloway, Elrod does have connections to other recent Wake Forest opponents.  Brian Knorr coached at Wake Forest alongside Elrod, then was Indiana defensive coordinator in 2015 when the teams met.  Ray McCartney, another former Wake Forest assistant and Elrod colleague, was the Army defensive line coach in 2014-15, and the Demon Deacons played the Black Knights in both seasons.

So there were easy opportunities for Elrod to contact opposing coaches at at least three schools that Wake Forest has played since 2014, and there could also be more less discernible connections that helped Elrod spread this information.

Likely the only person who knows every detail of Elrod’s subterfuge is Elrod himself, who has remained quiet thus far, erasing his presence on social media and not answering contact requests from the media.

In addition to being fired from his broadcasting position, Elrod is banned from all Wake Forest athletic events and facilities.  Elrod voluntarily resigned Monday from his position as director of business management for Verger Investment LLC, a firm created by Wake Forest to manage the university’s investments.

If all of the developments about Elrod are true, he has performed a disgraceful, repugnant, and subversive series of actions that have undermined the capability of the Wake Forest team to have adequate opportunity to compete fairly on the football field.

In other words, Benedict Arnold now has some company in the sports world.

 

Related:  Former Wake Forest Football Assistant Provided Game Plan Information to Opponents  (includes text of Wake Forest press release and statements from athletic director Ron Wellman and head football coach Dave Clawson)