Steve Elkington, 10-time PGA Tour winner and PGA Championship victor, is an avid Twitter user, with more than 60,000 followers. Unfortunately for Elkington, his style of humor doesn't always line up with his broad reach.
On Tuesday, Elkington lumbered into the ongoing story of Michael Sam, an openly gay NFL prospect, and offered up what he later claimed was a joke that backfired. In a since-deleted tweet, Elkington wrote:
Ha! Get it? Because he's gay, he must throw a handbag! You know, like a girl! Soon afterward, the tweet disappeared. Why? Elkington told Yahoo Sports' Shane Bacon "the [PGA] tour told me to."
The PGA Tour later released the following statement: "Under our regulations, conduct unbecoming a professional includes public commentary that is clearly inappropriate or offensive. With respect to this matter, and consistent with our longstanding policy, we do not comment on player disciplinary matters."
Forget offensiveness; the tweet failed on a most basic level: it wasn't even funny. Well, OK, it was "funny" in the way your middle-aged, when-will-he-shut-up cringeworthy uncle is "funny" at Thanksgiving dinner. Putting aside the fact that Sam, the SEC defensive player of the year, could probably throw Elkington himself a pretty good distance, this is a prime example of why people with a bit of influence might want to think before they tweet. Polls have shown that an overwhelming majority, greater than 80 percent, of both sports fans and NFL players would have no problem with a gay player in the NFL.
Elkington tried, in successive tweets, to "clarify" his remarks, saying that "ESPN covering Michael Sam as a gay athlete is embarrassing," and, in a tweet directed at Bacon, that "I'm for Sam I'm against ESPN telling me he's gay." He later used some unfortunate phraseology in trying to make a "we're all equal" point, all sic'd: "It goes back to 'a ball hit an oriental spectator'.There's no oriental spectators..There just spectators..'like m Sam...He's just an athlete." (Steve, "Oriental" hasn't been used to describe people of Asian descent for decades.)
Elkington is clearly upset about the fact that ESPN and other media outlets are focusing on Sam's sexual orientation, and he's not alone in that feeling. Sam himself said during this week's NFL combine that "I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player." Thing is, Elkington has it backwards: the media flurry right now is because everyone has avoided talking about athletes' sexual orientation for so long. We don't promote, say, "the first African-American to play a professional sport" because we've crossed that bridge. It's commonplace everywhere now. (Well ... almost everywhere. Golf, as you may have noticed, lags a bit behind in this area as well.)
This isn't an issue of restricting free speech; Elkington is perfectly free to say whatever floats into his mind. And it's not "political correctness," that tired old phrase that gets trotted out in place of actually thinking in depth about a complex issue.
No, this is simply about Elkington embarrassing himself and, by extension, his sport, by seeming unaware of changing times ... not unlike when Fuzzy Zoeller made his infamous "fried chicken" joke about Tiger Woods. Elkington, whether he wants it or not, is a representative of the sport of golf; he has "PGA" in his Twitter handle. And golf is a sport that has enough trouble with appearing socially out-of-step and stuck in the past. The last thing a sport with an aging fanbase needs is to appear entrenched in discarded history.