Let's suspend the suspensions rule

February, 23, 2010

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Tiger Woods has not been suspended by the PGA Tour.

Commissioner Tim Finchem intimated as much back in December and confirmed this once again on Sunday, while the final match of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship was still on the course.

Should Woods have even been eligible for disciplinary action in light of his off-course scandal? Vagueness in the language of the 2010 PGA Tour Player Handbook and Tournament Regulations makes it difficult to tell.

Any member who shall be deemed guilty of conduct unbecoming a professional golfer while participating in a PGA Tour cosponsored, approved or coordinated tournament, or activities related thereto (e.g., practice rounds, hospitality events, etc.), or who otherwise violates the provisions of Article VI and VII of these Regulations shall be subject to fine, suspension and/or permanent disbarment from tournament play as provided in these Regulations.

-- From page 120 of the 2010 PGA Tour Player Handbook and Tournament Regulations , Article VII, entitled "Discipline, Penalties & Appeals," includes Section C: "Conduct Unbecoming a Professional"

According to the handbook, PGA Tour members should be subject to suspensions only for on-course behavior, though within the past two years John Daly and Jim Thorpe reportedly have received penalties strictly for events that have occurred off the course.

The real issue here, though, is whether Finchem broke his long-standing policy that player discipline is never announced or even discussed externally. It could be said that the PGA Tour will comment on non-suspensions but not on suspensions; such action, however, would only result in a trial-and-error process to determine such news.

On Tuesday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, I asked Finchem whether his recent denial toward any suspension for Woods opens a new precedent in which he will now comment on player disciplinary action.

"I have on occasion [discussed suspensions] when there is a report in the press that misstates [the facts]. In this case, there was a report that he had been suspended, so I just clarified that," he said. "When I got the question Sunday, I said that I answered that two months ago and that was the reason that I did."

So, if there's a report that a player is suspended and it's untrue, the PGA Tour likely will issue a denial. But if there's a correct report in regard to a suspension, the PGA Tour will issue a swift "No comment."

Not sure how this makes any sense. In a game in which players call penalties on themselves, the commissioner should admit that the status quo is outdated and ineffective.

Finchem continued.

"But you're right -- we don't discuss it, but we leave ourselves the opportunity to discuss it. If I were to fine a player or suspend a player and a player made a comment about it that in some way misstated the facts -- and I say that to the player if the player is disciplined -- but that was the appropriate answer in this case."

I followed by asking Finchem whether there was any thought to tightening up the language in the player handbook to better specify exactly which types of action would be deemed grounds for punishment and which would not.

"You know, we take the view that if something happens in your personal life, it is not subject for disciplinary action. The fact that another individual or individuals made it public doesn't dissuade us from that attitude. I don't know of any other sport that disciplines a player for things like that in their private life."

Once again, "things like that" is undoubtedly vague language. Is he speaking specifically about marital indiscretions? Or anything that occurs in a player's life off the course? If the latter is the case, there are plenty of examples from other sports in which behavior outside competition leads to disciplinary action. Granted, they are different scenarios than that of Woods because laws were broken, but the cases of NFL players Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress show that leagues have the authority to suspend players for events that did not take place within competition.

There are also no other sports that fail to disclose suspensions and fines. If Finchem wants to compare the PGA Tour to other organizations, he needs to further examine the contrasts.

Considering their recent suspensions, I'm sure Daly (who served a six-month PGA Tour-imposed layoff last season) and Thorpe (who was told he could not play the Champions Tour while awaiting a prison sentence for tax evasion) would question that perspective.

Should Woods have been subject to disciplinary action for his off-course affairs and ensuing scandal? It certainly could be argued that what occurred was conduct unbecoming and that it hurt the game. But it's disingenuous for the PGA Tour commissioner to state that punishment can only be the effect of on-course indiscretions.

My twofold suggestion: The PGA Tour needs to publicize all suspensions and fines, thereby eliminating any rumor, speculation and innuendo. It also should change the language within the handbook, leaving less guesswork as to when players can be subject to disciplinary action and when that's not even a possibility.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

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