04/03/2012 08:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Big Blue's Big Bind

Now that the NCAA finals are over, the sports world can give its undivided attention to the Masters Golf Tournament starting later this week. Tiger Woods is back. And so is the controversy over the Augusta National Golf Club's all-male no-girls-allowed bunker mentality.

But unlike 2003 when the National Council of Women's Organizations (full disclosure -- led by yours truly) unsuccessfully protested the club's policies, the spotlight is now trained on the sponsors. Well, not all of them -- just IBM.

Big Blue is in a big bind. The company is the major underwriter, and has been for years. IBM's CEOs have always been given memberships in Augusta National. And IBM's CEOs have always been male. Not any more. Virginia Rometty is the new chief as of January -- and one tradition (Augusta's boys-only policy) runs smack dab into another (giving IBM's CEO a membership along with the coveted ugly green jacket).

What's a company with a reputation to protect and a CEO to respect gonna do? If the club stonewalls (so far they have had no comment) and IBM goes along with it and stays mum, it's tantamount to saying Rometty's stature plays second fiddle to the wishes of the dinosaurs at Augusta, and image (hers and the company's) be damned.

If IBM pressures Rometty into saying she doesn't want the tacky green jacket, it looks like what it undoubtedly would be -- the board of directors putting the thumbscrews on her to "go along to get along" and bow to the stronger tradition -- 2012-04-03-yourvoicesmallest2.JPG sex discrimination. The same would be true if some sham deal is made to let her in in a year or so -- just not now. It's a trifecta. She loses face, the company loses credibility, and the public, customers, and female employees lose respect for IBM. The only winner is a club far out of touch with reality and stuck far back in the 19th century.

So that leaves two choices -- the club does the right thing, opens to women, and treats IBM's new CEO just like it has treated those before her. If they don't, IBM walks, taking it's sponsorship money with it and leaving those almighty memberships on the club's doorstep.

Nine years ago IBM raked me over in a phone call for even raising the issue of sponsorships. The company spokesman claimed they supported the tournament, not the club. It was a distinction without a difference then, and it won't wash now.

The boys at Augusta and IBM have had almost a decade to solve this -- and they've done nothing. The ruckus women's groups raised back then is the reason this problem is making headlines now. And neither the controversy nor the advocates for women are going away. Women's organizations opened the doors to the executive suites for the Romettys of the world by changing laws, and we won't quit until all of the "traditions" barring women from other halls of power like Augusta National are discredited and broken down too.

If this were about a new African American male CEO and the club barred blacks, IBM would call a news conference and denounce race discrimination and the club in the bargain.

Can a respectable corporation do any less because it's sex discrimination?

Big Blue's credibility hangs in the balance.