Does the PGA Tour need a players' union?

Originally Published: March 4, 2008
ESPN.com/GolfDigest.com

All this talk of drug testing has reportedly got some PGA Tour players kicking around the idea of starting a union. Should it happen? We asked our panel of experts to weigh in for the latest edition of Fact or Fiction.

FACT OR FICTION?


The PGA Tour needs a union.

Bob Harig, contributor, ESPN.com: FICTION.
One of the beauties of golf is that it is, mostly, free of the off-field squabbles that we often see in other sports. There are no holdouts, no contract disputes, no threats of a strike. Golfers get paid based upon performance and performance only. If Tiger Woods misses a cut, he goes home with nothing from a PGA Tour event.

From time to time, there have been rumblings on the PGA Tour that the players need to band together and be represented as one. Such talk has surfaced again in the wake of drug-testing rules that will go into place this summer. Some of the murmuring likely has merit. When you are trying to serve the needs of several hundred people, not everyone is going to be happy.

But any card-carrying member of the PGA Tour would be hard-pressed to say that things are so bad that union representation is necessary. In addition to playing for a minimum of $5 million a week, the PGA Tour has one of the best -- if not the best -- pension plans of any sport. And that is despite independent contractor status that players to dearly cling to. They get courtesy cars, free meals. Most players have lucrative endorsement deals.

And yes, now they are going to have to submit to drug testing, which happens to be a part of the real world and a necessary evil in sports. PGA Tour players would be best to seek more input and a loud voice through means other than a union.

Jason Sobel, golf editor, ESPN.com: FICTION.
The Rolling Stones first wailed the chorus to "You Can't Always Get What You Want," back in 1969. Perhaps it's time some of the PGA Tour's most vocal members slide the "Let It Bleed" album into the CD player of their courtesy cars.

For years, anytime the pros were peppered with questions about selfish scheduling strategies or even -- gulp! -- some sort of revenue sharing, many would plead golf's version of the Fifth Amendment, invoking the words "independent contractor" as the reasoning behind such individualistic pursuits. Nothing wrong with that; after all, it's true. But now questions have been raised about inefficiencies with the tour's new drug-testing policy and the unfairness of the erstwhile Rule 78 … and all of a sudden there's a call to band together and unite as one?

Pick your poison, men. Life as a PGA Tour member has become increasingly remunerative in recent years. (Don't believe it? Try this number on for size: Sean O'Hair, who owns one career victory, has already surpassed Jack Nicklaus on the lifetime money list.) Players are free to make their own decisions on scheduling matters or, really, anything else, as long as it's within tour bylaws. Bellyaching about some negligible issues doesn't earn much sympathy with the hoi polloi who purchase tickets and watch the telecasts each week -- just as the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL players who have sacrificed seasons in the past. But the real question as to why tour players would seek this comes down to one word: Why? There really needs to be a unionized front in order to sort out a few recent issues -- each of these players, remember, was voted on by a policy board that includes four of their current brethren. Sounds a bit like cutting off a nose to spite one's face.

Tour members who are asking for such reformation should be reminded of Jagger's biting words. They can't always get what they want, but If they try sometimes, they just might get what they need. It's time for these players to differentiate what they want from what they really need.

Ron Sirak, executive editor, Golf World: FACT.
One of the most misleading things in sports is the notion that PGA Tour players are independent contractors. While it is true the players do not work for teams, the fact is they work for the PGA Tour. Now technically, the PGA Tour is the players, but that is not the way it actually works. Perhaps part of the problem is that the players do not pay enough attention to what is going on concerning issues that directly effect them. But if they were unionized, they would have a greater sense of obligation to those issue.

Let me ask you this: If the players are independent contractors, how come there is a minimum number of tournaments they have to play each year? If they are independent, how come they have to get tour permission to play in conflicting events? If they are independent, how come they have to pay a rights fee to the tour when they appear on TV in a non-tour event? And if they are independent, how come they had to agree not to sue the tour over the final results of a failed drug test? Seems to me these are all issues on which a union could get the players a better deal than they have now.