Golfweek cover image more damaging than original comment

If we've learned anything from the numerous "Law and Order" series in primetime and countless marathons that litter the cable airwaves, it's this: Premeditated crimes are considered more heinous than unplanned acts and a conscious decision to break the law will always receive a more stringent penalty than a spur of the moment mistake. Let's keep that in mind while exploring the levels of disdain in golf's most recent major controversy.

Last week, Kelly Tilghman's "lynch [Tiger Woods] in a back alley" comment occurred during the course of a live, four-hour telecast on the Golf Channel, blurted in response to analyst Nick Faldo's estimation that the world's younger players would need to "gang up" on the No. 1-ranked man in order to defeat him at a major championship. Using the term "lynch" was undoubtedly a poor choice of words and, in the minds of many, an inexcusable offense.

The situation immediately transcended the game of golf -- and sport entirely -- becoming a sociological hot-button topic, as parties took sides on whether the word was a blatant breach of civil rights conduct or political correctness gone horribly astray.

The latest fragment of this controversy to hit the fray is the most recent issue of Golfweek magazine -- and it's worthy of discussion because there was a viable thought process behind it. As part of a package of stories on the controversy, the publication used the image of a noose on the cover of its Jan. 19 issue, complete with headline "Caught in a Noose."

Simply put, the cover image is classless. We can debate for eternity whether it was offensive, childish, journalistically irresponsible or all three, but it's difficult to argue that the cover-image selection wasn't in extremely poor taste.

So, how should we react? Let it go. Pay it no mind. Like the first-grader whose sole motive is to gain more attention from the teacher with each wailing tantrum, this cover was simply Golfweek's way of letting everyone know it exists, a means of getting the brand into the mainstream consciousness via a promotional, any-publicity-is-good-publicity attention-grabber. Just as many of the people who were discussing Tilghman's indiscretion had never even heard of the announcer before the incident, I'm sure there will be people criticizing Golfweek who have never opened the magazine.

And yet, here we are talking about it. Simply ignoring this cover wouldn't make it go away, wouldn't mean it never happened. Though Tilghman's comment was incendiary, we can safely assume there was no premeditated notion behind it. Golfweek's image of a noose, on the other hand, was a calculated attempt to make the magazine a part of the story. The magazine's editors discussed the ramifications of such a cover, decided it was a winning proposition, then asked a photographer to capture a noose on film and conjured up the accompanying headline before going to print. But at any point did they feel they were helping the situation by employing one of the most powerful symbols of racism?

A phone call to Golfweek vice president/editor Dave Seanor wasn't immediately returned, but he did speak earlier to USA Today. "Was it an arresting image? Yes, it was," Seanor told the newspaper. "We chose it because it was an image we thought would draw attention to an issue we thought deserved some intelligent dialogue."

Seanor was removed as editor on Friday.

The intelligent dialogue no longer revolves around Tilghman's comment, however. There are now conversations taking place on TV and radio stations, the Internet and, presumably, around watercoolers throughout the country, centered on the unilateral objection toward Golfweek's follow-up cover image.

Those watercoolers even include a certain one in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., as PGA Tour commissioner was among those who expressed displeasure with the decision.

"Clearly, what Kelly said was inappropriate and unfortunate and she obviously regrets her choice of words," he said in a statement. "But we consider Golfweek's imagery of a swinging noose on its cover to be outrageous and irresponsible. It smacks of tabloid journalism. It was a naked attempt to inflame and keep alive an incident that was heading to an appropriate conclusion."

"What [Tilghman] said was wrong," said Joe Steranka, CEO of the PGA of America. "But some of the coverage has been upsetting and disappointing and not in the spirit this issue should be handled.''

The Golfweek cover was meant to instill discussion and debate about Tilghman's use of the word "lynch." Instead, it's simply added fuel to the fire, igniting conjecture about diversity in golf and the power of a hurtful image.

All of which makes it more damaging than the original comment.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com