Can one awful comment change golf for better?   

Updated: January 21, 2008, 3:54 PM ET

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Kelly Tilghman should not be fired.

She should be suspended. She should be criticized. And, no, we should not buy the excuse that a 38-year-old woman from the South (grew up in South Carolina, went to Duke) had no idea the word "lynch" is offensive when referring to a black man. You can learn that just by watching "A Time to Kill."

But fired? No. This issue is bigger than Tilghman.

Firing Tilghman, the Golf Channel anchor who was suspended two weeks for "joking" on the air that young players should "lynch [Tiger Woods] in a back alley," would only give golf a handy escape route. Tilghman is a convenient scapegoat, and the outcry against her only covers up golf's biggest problem -- an appalling lack of diversity that makes situations like this ripe to happen.

Maybe Tilghman would have been less likely to utter such damaging words if the Golf Channel had more than two people of color among its 33 on-air personalities. Or if the 400-person company had more than 15 percent minorities. If that number were higher, maybe Tilghman would have been prompted to apologize to her viewers right away, instead of three days later.

And maybe if Golfweek had better diversity within its magazine staff, it wouldn't have been stupid enough to put a noose on this week's cover, which rightly cost editor David Seanor his job Friday.

Instead of trying to sell magazines with a sensational image, maybe Golfweek could have given its readers some context, explaining to them that nearly 5,000 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in this country, 73 percent of whom were black. Maybe then the magazine would have achieved its goal of spurring honest dialogue -- and those who, like Woods, believed this is a "non-issue" would understand that the word "lynch" is off-limits to most blacks, just as joking about the Holocaust is off-limits to most Jews.

When asked by Barbara Ciara, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, about his magazine's diversity Wednesday night, Seanor told Ciara it was difficult to attract minorities (the magazine's office is in Orlando, Fla.). Hopefully, Ciara informed him NABJ has more than 3,000 members, and perhaps Seanor hasn't been looking in the right places.

"What this does is have the industry take a step back and say, 'What am I doing from a diversity standpoint?' " said Greg Nared, who worked closely with Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie as a business affairs manager at Nike before starting his own sports agency three months ago. "It's sad it takes this to happen, but it's the reality of the business and in life."

While golf's leaderboards regularly reflect diversity from every corner of the globe, golf struggles to be perceived as more than a "white sport." Between Tilghman and Golfweek, that perception was reinforced. Golf has a history of exclusion. Some people still don't believe Augusta National should admit a female member because it's a private club that can do what it wants -- which is the same excuse they used against African Americans. Adding more minority golfers was a start, but adding more minorities throughout the sport, from the golf courses to the boardrooms to the networks, is equally important.

I'm in no way defending Tilghman. While I don't believe she is a racist, I certainly wouldn't classify what she said as a "slip." A cussword is a slip. This was a constructed racial scenario that is a frightening reminder for some people in this country. Considering the Jena 6, and the increasing number of nooses that have shown up at college campuses recently as methods of intimidation, Tilghman should have known better.

Now comes the hard part. Ultimately, should this cost Tilghman her career? There's an assumption out there Tilghman will be back on the air in the same capacity once her suspension is served, but a spokesperson from the Golf Channel told me Thursday that nothing was decided.

Tilghman's comments were more serious than Don Imus', but she is not the habitual offender he was. That must be taken into consideration, since Tilghman seems on the verge of following in the footsteps of Fuzzy Zoeller, Jimmy The Greek, Steve Lyons and Al Campanis.

Tilghman is being punished appropriately, but she should be offered an opportunity to change. So should golf.

Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.


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