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It may be time for PGA Tour players to unionize

Vijay Singh
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Here is a sentence we never thought we’d pen – it may be time for a union in pro golf and it was Vijay Singh, of all people, who has made that point as clear as the small print on a bottle of the Ultimate Spray.

Before we dub the Fijian pro golf’s version of Norma Rae it should be pointed out that Singh is a vehicle in this conversation, not a victim, although one could be excused for confusing the two if they read his 25-page motion filed Monday in New York Supreme Court to deny the PGA Tour’s motion to dismiss his lawsuit.

Singh is currently locked in a legal bout with the circuit over his run in with the Tour’s anti-doping program. In short, he admitted to using the Ultimate Spray which contains IGF-1, a growth-like factor that is banned by the Tour.

Late in the appeal process, however, the World Anti-Doping Agency did a 180 on IGF-1, deeming the trace amounts in the spray and the method of use (orally) not a violation, although it should be pointed out that IGF-1 is still banned by the Tour and WADA.

In fact, despite claims by Singh and his attorney, IGF-1 has always been on the Tour’s list of prohibited substances, a fact that may likely deny Singh his moment of justice.

But it’s not Singh’s systematic disregard of repeated warnings from the Tour about IGF-1 or WADA’s shaky science on the substance that has brought golf to the crossroads of a collective bargaining agreement; it’s the trapdoors in the Tour’s policy that have set the stage for, if not a union, a union-like organization to protect the players.

As Singh’s attorney Peter Ginsberg pointed out in Monday’s motion, “In the world of private sporting organizations, an entity such as the Tour dominates over its members, administers the sport without any participation or real support of its members, and avoids the systemic counterbalances created when a collective bargaining agreement serves as a check and creates balance.”

Point of fact, Tour policy is approved by the circuit’s policy board, which includes four player directors (who are elected by the circuit’s membership), four independent directors and the current president of the PGA of America (Ted Bishop).

It was the policy board that ultimately approved the anti-doping program in 2007, so technically the players did have a say in the policy, although it is a minority voice.

Yet Singh’s point is still valid. There is no union – or player ombudsman, as Peter Jacobsen, once suggested – to step in to assist when a player runs afoul of a Tour policy, specifically a doping violation.

In 2009, Doug Barron became the only player suspended under the Tour’s anti-doping policy for testing positive for testosterone and beta blockers, both banned substances that had been prescribed by Barron’s doctors.

Although Barron could have appealed the decision and gone before an arbitration hearing, the timing of that hearing (late fall) meant that Barron would have likely lost two seasons instead of one if his appeal wasn’t successful. As a result, Barron lost a year of his career for taking at least one substance that he was later granted a therapeutic use exemption by the Tour to take.

Had someone been in Barron’s corner from the start of the proceedings it’s hard to imagine things not working out differently for the affable journeyman who has since retired from pro golf.

It’s a point that Singh’s attorneys drove home in Monday’s motion.

“Unlike other American team sports leagues, such as the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, the anti-doping program was not collectively bargained,” Singh’s motion read.

The motion further pointed out that, at least for top players, the Tour is the only game in town. “Singh and the other Tour members have no bargaining power with the Tour. The Tour is the men’s professional golf tour in the United States and North America. The Tour is not just the preeminent men’s professional golf tour in North America – it has no competition.”

Historically the notion of a union in pro golf has been derailed by the fact that players are independent contractors and the Tour is a membership-owned-and-operated organization. But for years players have called for the creation of a player ombudsman to serve as a player’s voice in situations like Singh and Barron found themselves.

As unseemly as unions in sport have become, the concept has gained traction among the rank and file in recent years.

“I think there should be a player representative. There needs to be an ombudsman, a liaison, someone who represents all the players in situations like these,” said one Tour type. “We are independent contractors but what about something like the Screen Actors Guild? Aren’t actors independent contractors? Isn’t the Screen Actors Guild a union?

“I don’t think there is any reason we couldn’t have a union.”

There is no sidestepping the reality that Singh blew through his share of doping stop signs, but considering the ever evolving list of prohibited substances, and WADA’s recent waffling in regards to IGF-1, it’s not a stretch to suggest that a player without Singh’s financial and legal resources could have erroneously been found guilty of a violation under similar circumstances.

These words are not easy to type, but it may be time for Tour players to unite and it could be Singh who gets credit for leading the way.