The Phoenix Country Club, the Mens 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?
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.
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.
To the club's board of directors, that was apparently much more offensive than sending nasty e-mails. Or harassing Logan and Barbara Van Sittert. Brown was kicked out.
Not one of his buddies has invited him back for a round of golf since.
Attorney Helen Perry Grimwood isn't a member of the Phoenix Country Club. But she did, once, set foot in the Men's Grill.
As a young lawyer in 1982, Grimwood was chosen to serve on a litigation team at her firm — a groundbreaking selection. She realized just how groundbreaking when she showed up for a breakfast meeting called by one of the firm's partners.
Without thinking, he'd scheduled the meeting at the Men's Grill.
"When I showed up, the whole group was escorted out of the Men's Grill and into what I call 'the pink room' — which is now the Women's Grill," Grimwood says. "It was pretty funny."
Years later, when the Men's Grill again became an issue, Grimwood heard that her neighbor, Rusty Brown, had advocated for opening it up. It was she who asked him to address the Arizona Women Lawyers Association's monthly luncheon last February.
Brown gave me a copy of his remarks. What he said, in part, was this: Important networking goes on in the Men's Grill, and female professionals suffer for their exclusion.
He closed by explaining how he'd quickly agreed to Helen Perry Grimwood's request to speak, despite not enjoying public speaking.
Well, as a human, I think we are hard-wired to reject bad ideas. Bad ideas should die out in a Darwinian sort of way . . .
As the husband of a professional woman, I see how hard she has to work in order to succeed. She doesn't need any artificial barriers in her way, and neither do you.
And, finally, as a parent — I have two daughters — I think I have an obligation to make things a little better for them. That's really all I'm trying to do.
Well, he did it.
The Phoenix Country Club settled with the attorney general over the Van Sittert's original claim in January. As part of the settlement, the club agreed to change its policy. The place is currently under renovation, but once it's complete, the Men's Grill will be open to both sexes.
But Rusty Brown won't be dining there. He's been forced to file a lawsuit just to get the price of his stock back.
The club has tried to claim that Brown's expulsion has been misrepresented. Members whisper that Brown attempted to organize a boycott of its board members' businesses, which is untrue. And board members have claimed in correspondence that he brought "dishonor and discredit to the club on multiple occasions." Thanks to the attorney general's five-page ruling, we now know that's been bunk from day one — they just didn't like his position on the Men's Grill issue.
It's not just petty; it's stupid. It would have cost the board less than $50,000 to have Brown go away — and go for good. But instead they're fighting him in court — an action the club's lawyer estimated in one internal memo could cost $170,000 to $280,000 in legal fees.
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.
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