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7 Bold Takes for 2017: More Athletes (Including Golfers!) Will Take a Stand

December 28, 2016

Ed. note: Over seven days, GOLF.com is rolling out seven bold takes for 2017. Here’s the latest installment by GOLF.com’s Pete Madden, on why fans should expect golfers to get political this upcoming year.

Like most sportswriters, I got my education from Gary Smith. He spent 32 years at Sports Illustrated writing the kind of stories that stay with you, and while everyone has a favorite, I’ve never met another writer who shares mine. As he neared the end of his career, Smith penned a profile of Wonman Joseph Williams, a 19-year-old Virginia Cavaliers defensive back who joined a campus hunger strike in support of the Living Wage Campaign. Smith dubbed Williams “America’s rarest athlete” and used the young man’s protest as a vehicle to explore the question that titled the piece: “Why Don’t More Athletes Take a Stand?”

“Is it any wonder that … no such thing as a sportsman social activist has sprung since the days of Jim Brown, Bill Russell, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Bill Walton?” Smith asked in 2012. “When it comes to social action that might step on toes, that might send a shiver down the spine of their publicists or their corporate sponsors, what have American athletes done?”

All that changed in 2016. This year marked the return of politics to sports, as athletes across several major leagues publicly rallied to social causes in the face of blistering criticism. Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. LeBron James donned an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt. The U.S Women’s Soccer Team demanded equal pay for equal play.

Fans should brace for more in 2017, as Donald Trump’s election could spark the progressive political awakening Smith found lacking four years ago. If Trump turns back the clock, as “Make America Great Again” suggests he is eager to do, then a diverse group of athletes will follow suit, channeling the social activism that energized our sporting arenas during the Civil Rights Era. And golfers will have a key role to play.

Professional golf is a deeply conservative institution. The PGA dropped its “Caucasians-only” clause in 1961, making golf the last major professional sport to integrate. Augusta National Golf Club, home to the world’s most famous golf tournament, didn’t admit its first female members until 2012. The PGA Tour operates at the nexus of country clubs, corporate sponsors and cultural conservatism, so it should surprise no one that golf fans are overwhelmingly white, male and over the age of 55, the same demographic that helped carry Trump to the White House.

Outside the boardrooms, however, professional golf is changing. The game’s global expansion has attracted athletes from a much deeper and more diverse talent pool, especially on the LPGA Tour, whose biggest stars will tee it up in the U.S. Women’s Open at Trump National Bedminster in July.

It’s here that motivation meets opportunity.

While much of the golf world rejoiced that a major proponent of the game had been elected to the nation’s highest office, others didn’t share the enthusiasm and at least one wasn’t afraid to say so in a public forum. The LPGA was founded upon a commitment to diversity and inclusion; by maligning those values throughout his campaign, Trump may have set himself on a collision course with a socially conscious athlete on one of his favorite sport’s biggest stages.

She would face criticism, from fans and pundits and fellow pros. She might even draw the ire of the President himself. Her family and friends might try to talk her out of it. Her publicists and corporate sponsors would almost certainly beg her to reconsider. But athletes so rarely speak up. If a golfer took a stand like that, millions might be ready to listen.

7 Bold Takes for 2017

Ritter: Someone Will Shoot 62 in a Major
Bamberger: Tiger Will Make ‘Major’ Progress
Sens: The Yips Will Be Eliminated Forever
Zak: A New Star Emerges From the Class of 2011
McDowell: Brooks Koepka Ready to Join Elite Tier
Berhow: Mickelson Bags Major No. 6 in 2017