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PGA Tour could learn from NBA's transparency in Sterling case

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The PGA Tour will claim that its policy concerning crime and punishment is very straightforward. That the long-standing practice of “Go ahead and ask, we won’t tell” when it comes to disciplinary actions is, by definition, as transparent as it gets.

But if anyone ever needed an example of why the circuit’s policy is as archaic as it is counterproductive, they need only glance at today’s headlines.

“NBA commissioner bans Clippers owner Sterling, pushes to ‘force a sale’ of team,” read CNN.com.

“Clippers owner Sterling banned for life by NBA,” announced NBA.com.

“NBA bars Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life,” from NYTimes.com.

And so it went, large type in bold letters announcing, essentially, that the NBA will not tolerate racist remarks. No ambiguity. No supposition.

If comparisons to Donald Sterling’s comments – which prompted NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban the owner for life, fine him $2.5 million and force him to sell the franchise – and, say, a fine for slow play or a ubiquitous “conduct unbecoming” suspension seem wildly disconnected, consider the plight of Steve Elkington, a serial social media offender.

In February, the Champions Tour player tweeted, “ESPN reporting Michael Sam is leading the handbag throw at NFL combine . . . no one else expected to throw today.”

Elkington’s tweet was a not-so-subtle jab at Sam, the University of Missouri linebacker who announced earlier this year that he was gay, and likely just as offensive to a portion of the population as Sterling’s misguided comments.

Nor was this the first time Elkington blew through the boundaries of socially accepted speech.

Last July, while playing the Senior British Open the Australian tweeted, “Couple of caddies got rolled by some Pakkis (Pakistanis), bad night for them.” Elkington later said he had no idea “Pakki” was an abusive term and apologized for the tweet.

Perhaps the PGA Tour, which runs the Champions Tour, punished Elkington following his initial tweet last July, although he played 10 more events on the senior circuit in 2013 including the 3M Championship the very next week. But we’ll never know because the Tour doesn’t announce fines or suspensions other than violations of its performance-enhancing drug policy.

Similarly, after Elkington’s comments regarding Sam, the Tour remained silent, although he missed two events from the middle of February to the Greater Gwinnett Championship, which suggests he served a suspension.

But we’ll never know, because the Tour isn’t interested in airing its dirty laundry.

Instead, Elkington told reporters that he was asked by the Tour to take down the tweet.

A statement from the Tour said. “Under our regulations, conduct unbecoming a professional includes public commentary that is clearly inappropriate or offensive. With respect to this matter, and consistent with our longstanding policy, we do not comment on player disciplinary matters.”

If ever there was a moment of inertia when the Tour had the right of way to take a stand and make it clear that it would not tolerate homophobic nonsense it was now, and yet the circuit hid behind a dogmatic policy.

Instead of taking a stand, like Silver, and sending a clear message, not just to its players but the public who follows the sport, the Tour clung to the small print in the player handbook and doled out, at best, a two-tournament suspension for Elkington’s misguided attempt at humor and what has become habitually poor decisions.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has repeatedly stated that the Tour is, on balance, a respectable lot of rule followers, and more than 15 years covering the circuit leads me to agree. But to think every player who plays for pay is enlightened is misguided.

Maybe if the Tour took a public and pointed stand last July following his offensive tweet about Pakistanis, Elkington would have kept his comments about Sam to himself. It likely wouldn’t have changed his outlook on the world, but it would have kept his finger off the “tweet” button, and that’s a start.

On Tuesday, Silver pulled no punches or veils. There was no cloak of secrecy or the ambiguous undertones of tacit indifference, just the harsh reality that Sterling and his raciest ideals aren’t welcome in the NBA.

That’s why transparency works, and why the Tour’s policy doesn’t.