Monday, June 10, 2019

The Shame of Hank Haney

I took much pleasure in watching two of my former students compete in the U.S. Women’s Open last week.   Gina Kim took my big introductory anthropology class here at Duke University this past spring, and Yu Liu did a few years ago, and both women each once kindly played nine holes with me.  Being out on the course with world-class players was a great treat, although the two young stars from Duke's perennially elite team may not have anticipated how much time they would spend searching for my lost balls in the trees.
I thought about Gina and Yu when I heard about the comments of Tiger Woods’s former coach, Hank Haney, just before the U.S. Open.  In his regular appearance on the SiriusXM PGA Tour radio channel, Haney was asked about the tournament:
Host: “This week is the 74th U.S. Women’s Open, Hank.”
Haney: “Oh it is? I’m gonna predict a Korean.”
Host, laughing: “OK, that’s a pretty safe bet.”
Haney: “I couldn’t name you six players on the LPGA Tour. Maybe I could. Well … I’d go with Lee. If I didn’t have to name a first name, I’d get a bunch of them right.”
Host: “We’ve got six Lees.”
Haney: “Honestly, Michelle Wie is hurt. I don’t know that many. Where are they playing, by the way?”
In this “gotcha” society, it came as little surprise that USA Today and other media immediately reported Haney’s “racist and sexist comments.”  I’m not sure whether his would-be funny commentary rose exactly to that level, but it was depressingly unfunny in more ways than one. A supposed golf expert unaware that the U.S. Women’s Open was being played that weekend?  Or having no idea where the tournament would be held?  And couldn't name even six LPGA players?  This is exactly the kind of condescending trivialization of women’s sports that female athletes have been battling for decades.
It’s worth remembering golf’s unpleasant history of discrimination against women.  They were not admitted as members at many country clubs for decades, including Augusta National until 2012.  The  LPGA was the first women's professional sports league in the world, but it still struggles for sponsors and recognition.  The consensus best course in America, Pine Valley, remains men-only even now.   For that matter, there’s still some baked-in sexism in golf culture, the leering at the cart girl and the grill room jokes.   It’s demoralizing that a golf influencer like Haney would make a know-nothing bro culture joke of his lack of knowledge about the women’s game.   
And then there’s the matter of race, ethnicity, and the habits of stereotyping.  We know about golf’s many decades of exclusion and discrimination against African-Americans, including the so-called “Caucasians-only” clause on the PGA tour until 1961.  The old-fashioned racist tropes fixed Asians as swarming Yellow Peril hordes, and, more recently, the stereotypes have been updated to a picture of high-achieving yet robotic, sexless, and uninteresting people.  When Haney professes not to know the names of more than few players on tour (and to joke about so many named Lee), he propagates exactly this idea of Asians as a generic mass impossible to distinguish between.  The irony is that the men’s tour is no hotbed of diversity and individualism.  It’s dominated by whites from affluent backgrounds with the same cookie-cutter swings and bland personalities.  By any measure, the LPGA is the more diverse of the two tours with more countries represented in the top 100 than the American-heavy PGA tour. The legendary Duke University women’s golf coach, Dan Brooks, has led his team to seven national championships precisely by recruiting internationally.   His squads are a United Nations of women’s golf with recent standouts from Italy, Israel, France, Ireland, and Thailand.
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Gina Kim
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Yu Liu
Let me return to Gina Kim and Yu Liu.  As their backgrounds underline, the whole idea of “Asian” golfers is a lazy shorthand.  Gina is of Korean descent and Yu is Chinese, and, in fact, there are top female players from an array vastly different Asian countries – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and China.  The very term “Korean” is complex, since it includes women born and raised in countries including New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.  Like LPGA star Michelle Wie (who went on social media to call Haney to account), Gina Kim has Korean parents, but is American, having grown up here.  Her parents are both professors of Spanish at Duke’s great rival, UNC, making her the rare professional golfer with academics for parents.  Yu is among the pioneering female Chinese golfers in a country where Mao banned golf for decades (and instead promoted the more ostensibly democratic sport of table tennis.)   Their stories deserve far better than the know-nothing prejudice about there being “too many Asians” still visible in perceptions of the women’s golf today.
I was glad to see Tiger Woods, who often shies from social controversy, weigh on the Haney controversy.  When SiruxXM announced it was suspending Haney for his comments, Woods tweeted that his former coach had “gotten what he deserved.”  Woods is part-Asian himself with a Thai mother, after all, not to mention with little love lost for Haney for cashing in on their years together with an unflattering tell-all book.  After at first apologizing, Haney has pulled a Trump – doubling down on his original stupid comments with no contrition.  The victory of a South Korean women showed he had been right all along, Haney claimed.  “I knew a Lee would win,” he tweeted.  The point had never been who would win, but rather Haney’s expressed disinterest in the women’s game and generic lumping together of Asian players as “a bunch of Lees.”  He just doesn’t get it.
This didn’t stop Gina Kim and Yu Liu from having fine tournaments.  Gina’s opening day 66 tied the U.S Women’s Open record for low round by an amateur, and she finished 12th. Yu placed fifth after tying for the lead at one point.  I remember suggesting to Yu that she finish her Duke degree before going pro, but she left after her first year.  It’s clear enough that she had reason for that decision given she’s almost earned a million dollars on tour while I still make my modest professor’s salary.   
It’s easy to forget that women were almost completely barred from playing sports at all little more than a century ago.  The “fair sex” was too delicate to sweat went the nostrums of Victorian porcelain doll feminity; their uteruses might even fall out if they exerted themselves too hard. We are happily far beyond those days even if there remains a long way to go.

I hit an especially good drive for me when I played my nine with Gina and a couple of members of the men’s golf team, about 260 yards down the middle.  “Good shot,” Gina said, before stepping up to launch her drive far past mine into the blue sky.