The Phoenix Country Club, the Men’s Grill, and Rusty Brown

Rusty Brown isn't your typical civil rights hero.

For starters, he's a white male. He's also a lawyer and a really good golfer: a six-time tournament champion at the Phoenix Country Club. (His handicap is a plus-2 — which tends to elicit gasps of envy from people who know about golf.)

So you're probably thinking Rusty Brown is your classic rich white male asshole, right?

Jay Bennett

Location Info

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Phoenix Country Club

2901 N. Seventh St.
Phoenix, AZ 85014

Category: Sports and Recreation

Region: Central Phoenix

Wrong.

Rusty Brown — golfer, lawyer, privileged white dude — is the sacrificial lamb in a very odd, very nasty battle.

For nearly three years, the Phoenix Country Club has roiled with tension over demands that it desegregate its casual-dining facilities. As recently as 2008, there was a Men's Grill and a much inferior Women's Grill at the PCC — and gender rules were strictly enforced at the door.

Brown thought that was wrong, and said so.

Eventually, his views were vindicated by no less than Attorney General Terry Goddard, whose office forced the club to open the Men's Grill to women. But Brown still got screwed.

Never mind that certain other club members acted like total jerks during the Men's Grill controversy — vandalizing the golf course, peeing into a complainant's locker, sending nasty e-mails — and never suffered punishment. Never mind that all Brown did was advocate, reasonably, for change. He was still booted from the club where he played golf for 18 years.

And here's the ultimate insult: Even though Brown paid roughly $50,000 for his stock in the club, the club sent him a refund of just $450 when it expelled him.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office recently found "reasonable cause" that Brown was a victim of unlawful retaliation.

You think?


Brown didn't want to talk to me about any of this. Believe it or not, I've been pestering him to go on the record since his expulsion last July. He's been reluctant because he's genuinely embarrassed to be complaining about his former country club at a time when hard-working Americans are losing their jobs.

But I kept after him, especially after I learned of the attorney general's determination in January that he'd been illegally retaliated against. The story intrigued me. I'm used to dealing with whistleblowers who are outsiders; Brown was the ultimate insider. And unlike most others who pushed for desegregated dining, Brown had no personal stake. He was already "in" at the better grill; his wife, a physician, doesn't hang out at the club.

And, as Brown confirmed when we finally sat down last week, he hardly knew the couple who originally complained to the AG, Logan and Barbara Van Sittert. He'd never met Barbara; he knew Logan well enough only to say "hi" on the golf course.

But Brown had his convictions. So when the Van Sitterts started raising hell, Brown's first thought was, "It's about time."

He says now, "I was hopeful that it would permit an open and honest discussion within the club. Instead, they immediately painted the Van Sitterts as terrible people and only doled out those parts of the story that made them look bad."

During the initial attacks on the Van Sitterts, Brown found himself CC'd on an e-mail sent by some golf buddies. When he wrote back, questioning why members were so intent on keeping the grill closed to women, word spread.

And when his golf friends wrote back angrily, Brown didn't back down.

"Everybody kept saying, 'This was tradition,'" he says. "Well, you don't do something because it's tradition. You do something because it makes sense — and if you do it long enough, it becomes a tradition and you celebrate it.

"In one of the e-mails I sent in 2006, I wrote something like, 'You can't stop this. The locomotive has left the station; the best you can do is steer it into a friendly place. Whether you win or lose, if you fight this, you will look like fools in the press.'"

Of course, no one listened. And, of course, Brown was right: The club did look like fools in the press. First New Times reported on the controversy, then the Arizona Republic, then finally even the New York Times.

Naturally, every one of the stories was sympathetic to the Van Sitterts.

The good old boys weren't happy, and Brown — the traitor who they'd thought was one of them — became the focus of much of their ire. As I first reported last year, a member of the club's board of directors, Mike Hayes, established a gmail account in order to send nasty anonymous e-mails trashing Brown.

Hayes wrote under an oh-so-clever pseudonym: Kick the Bastards Out.

Oddly enough, when a subpoena established that Kick the Bastards Out was, in fact, Hayes, no one kicked him out. He was allowed to resign quietly.

It was Brown who got the boot. First, a year ago, he spoke to the Arizona Women Lawyers Association about the segregated dining, which earned him a reprimand from the club's board.

Then, when the New York Times reported on the reprimand in June 2008, Brown dared to tell the newspaper that most men at the club were "indifferent" to the segregated grills, or opposed to them.

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8 comments
Chrislongski
Chrislongski

So, let me get this straight: a snob got snubbed by the snobs...

A private membership organization can exclude any class, group or individual...ever heard of the Boy Scouts and the Gay thing ?

The women want to batter the door to the clubhouse down because the men are "getting away with it" again. Heck, I used to exclude my old lady from my den -- no exceptions. Anyone wonder why ?

Rusty Brown, you go!
Rusty Brown, you go!

In a county and state that has few heros, it was great reading about Rusty Brown, our new hero. Sarah, great job in writing this story, though I could care less about a good ole boys country club (we left that behind years ago for the same reasons Rusty Brown had his fill) but it's a story that needed to be told because if reflects the mentality of the state that refuses to move into the 21st century. Who even has money to burn on a club renovation? Rusy Brown collect what they owe you out of the renovation budget.

Wake up Arizona women!
Wake up Arizona women!

This is sooo country club out of the '50's! An era we thought we left behind. But then we're in Arizona a backwater state who has no use for women. Until the "good ole boys" are 10' under-nothing will ever change. Good ole boys -- it's time to pass on the baton before the next generation is no longer effective because, they too are too old.

howabouthangtheguiltyones
howabouthangtheguiltyones

the phrase ,classic white a hole" it just what most would classify when they see this is a country club. But when she further explains he has been amember and long time standing and not a trouble maker, is the point trying to get across, while The mgt trying to pull a 'good ole boys ' hehehhe above everyone attitude . Good for him calling them on it and standing up for what is right.

Lynch M All
Lynch M All

I think Fenske's line 'So you're probably thinking Rusty Brown is your classic rich white male asshole, right?', is being pretty narrowminded. I wonder how she would feel if an article in a conservative paper classified Obama as just another affirmative-action nigger? Or Salvador Reza as a trouble-making spic.

Lynch M All
Lynch M All

I think Fenske's line 'So you're probably thinking Rusty Brown is your classic rich white male asshole, right?', is being pretty narrowminded. I wonder how she would feel if an article in a conservative paper classified Obama as just another affirmative-action nigger? Or Salvador Reza as a trouble-making spic.

Percival Montague Fairfax IV
Percival Montague Fairfax IV

What idiocy! And, really, it's clear proof of one thing.

After nearly three years of fighting the Men's Grill issue, and being battered in the media, and being forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to the fight the AG, the Phoenix Country Club has learned nothing.

Nothing. - Fenske

Well, at least they're consistent and performing up to their usual standard!

 
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