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Cover story: Kelly Tilghman saga

Editor’s note: In response to a number of inquiries about the Jan. 19 cover of Golfweek, which can be found on the homepage of Golfweek.com, here is the accompanying story and Golfweek editorial from the issue.
Golfweek editorial: Defining a news story

By SCOTT HAMILTON
Senior Writer

“Lynch him in a back alley.”

That retort, intended to be a back-door compliment for Tiger Woods, required about three seconds to tumble from Kelly Tilghman’s mouth during Golf Channel’s Jan. 4 broadcast of the Mercedes-Benz Championship.

Two days passed before she apologized on air for the remark and five days went by before Golf Channel handed down a two-week suspension without pay, and then only – whether related or not – after it had drawn the ire of a well-known civil-rights activist. But as drawn out as the process was, there is little doubt the ramifications of that off-the-cuff comment will linger. Golf rarely contends with controversy, and the few flaps that do occur usually are limited to the insular world of golf.

Tilghman’s remark escaped golf’s biodome and slipped into the mainstream where it is fair game to everyone with a microphone or a computer. Change of some sort – major or minor, right or wrong – was bound to result.

Golf Channel already has revised a scheduled management training session to include sensitivity education on diversity issues in an effort to prevent and react to similar instances. It also is questioning internally why it took so long for a public apology to materialize and the suspension to be doled out.

That investigation could result in punishment for other Golf Channel employees, particularly the on-duty producers of the Mercedes-Benz.

“There were a number of factors that came into play,” Golf Channel president Page Thompson responded via e-mail to Golfweek. Thompson is a former senior vice president and general manager of video services for parent company Comcast who took over as Golf Channel president last spring. “But the bottom line is we need to look at our process and see how we can move more swiftly in the future.”

Thompson said no discussions had been held with regard to firing Tilghman. He would not speculate whether Golf Channel might scale back the number of events Tilghman works as lead anchor upon her return.

As of Jan. 14, Tilghman was slated to resume her duties 10 days later for the first round of the Buick Invitational. However, there had been conjecture by Golf Channel insiders that Comcast will order Tilghman fired before her suspension is up and that fill-in Rich Lerner will take over permanently. Tilghman, 38, who has risen through the ranks in 11-plus years at Golf Channel, also could be assigned to other duties. Before taking on anchor duties for Tour telecasts, Tilghman was a host of Golf Channel’s “Golf Central” nightly news show.

“It was a horrible analogy, and she will be kicking herself for a long, long time to come,” said Michael J. Whelan, a former Golf Channel executive who hired Tilghman. “That’s live television; people do make mistakes. . . . You have to think about what you are about to say and the ramifications of what could be said. What sounds so cute and funny in your mind comes out horrific. That little line in Kelly’s head was a cute little idea. Once she said it, everything stopped.”

Other sportscasters’ careers have been damaged or destroyed by spontaneous on-air comments. But Tilghman’s situation is unique, as she is the first female lead anchor in PGA Tour history and is as much the face of Golf Channel in its landmark 15-year deal with the PGA Tour as is six-time major winner Nick Faldo.

Assigning a man to that position immediately after Tilghman’s gaffe could be seen as a setback for other women looking to move into the 18th tower. On the other hand, reinstating her as if nothing had happened could stain Golf Channel’s – and Comcast’s – image.

“That was a totally unacceptable choice of words. I’m actually surprised that she’s only getting two weeks’ suspension,” said Rosie Jones, a former LPGA player and Golf Channel commentator. “You wouldn’t want someone to lose their job or their career, but I thought two weeks was a short amount of time.”

The incident in question began harmlessly enough.

During their usual post-round banter as they wrapped up Day 2 at the Plantation Course at Kapalua, Tilghman and co-host Faldo discussed young players who might challenge Woods. Faldo jokingly said perhaps the youngsters should “gang up (on Tiger) for a while.”

The pair chuckled before Tilghman responded by saying, “Lynch him in a back alley,” and turned back to the camera smiling broadly. Golf Channel said it received a limited number of complaints regarding the comment. Tilghman explained the incident during the final-round broadcast after having already reached out to Woods herself.

She later sent out another apology in a written statement saying she “used some poorly chosen words. I have known Tiger for 12 years and I have apologized directly to him. I also apologize to our viewers who may have been offended.” Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent, called the matter a “complete non-issue” and said he considered the “case closed.”

But the Internet and mainstream media wheels kept turning, resulting in the Rev. Al Sharpton calling for Tilghman to be fired during a Jan. 9 interview on CNN. He said his National Action Network would picket Golf Channel headquarters in Orlando and boycott the station if action were not taken. Golf Channel issued a statement later that evening saying Tilghman had been suspended for two weeks “for offensive language.’’

“While we believe that Kelly's choice of words were inadvertent and that she did not intend them in an offensive manner,’’ the statement read, “the words were hurtful and grossly inappropriate.” One source inside Golf Channel said the decision to suspend Tilghman had been made shortly before Sharpton appeared on CNN. A PGA Tour spokesman said the Tour didn’t weigh in on Tilghman’s fate, describing Golf Channel’s action as “an internal decision.’’ The Tour says it plays no role in choosing or rating the performance of on-air talent.

Regardless of the decision process, some observers argue even suspending Tilghman is overreacting despite the negative connotation of “lynch.” Context and intent, they say, is more important than the words used.

A recent comparison involves radio host Don Imus, who last spring spouted racial and insensitive remarks regarding the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. After one week of a growing outcry from civil-rights groups, including Sharpton’s, Imus was fired from WCBS. He returned to radio late in the year.

“Imus has a long history of making nasty, vicious, bigoted comments usually at poor people or oppressed people, people who can’t fight back,” said civil rights lawyer and radio talk show host Ron Kuby. “Kelly’s comment was about a very powerful person who also happens to be her friend and she was praising him. She was using mind-boggling offensive phrasing, incredibly stupid phrasing, and that’s the way broadcasters get themselves into trouble. . . . (But) the attacks on her are misplaced. ”

While Tilghman’s career hangs in the balance, her Southern roots have become fodder for critics and supporters alike.

Tilghman is a daughter of a prominent family in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., prompting speculation as to why the term “lynch” would pop into her mind ahead of others. Her experience also has been questioned; her promotion to the anchor role 13 months ago marked Tilghman’s first foray into live “play-by-play” announcing.

Tilghman, meanwhile, has remained silent, declining to respond to phone calls or e-mails sent to her by Golfweek. Woods has commented only through his agent. He is sure to be asked about the matter when he makes his first 2008 Tour start Jan. 25 at the Buick Invitational.

“Accept the apology and move on. We all say dumb things,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, a consultant of the San Francisco 49ers and a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

Edwards was a prominent civil rights activist in the 1960s who urged sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos to give the clench-fisted “black power” salute as the “Star Spangled Banner” was being played during their medal presentations at the ’68 Olympics.

“If we stopped the train every time somebody made a dumb remark that is potentially offensive, we’d never progress as a society. We’d be in big trouble.”

• • •

Scott Hamilton is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail shamilton@golfweek.com. Rex Hoggard and Beth Ann Baldry contributed.

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