I suspect there are many clubs that could have been sued—and maybe still could be—over the same issues that were brought up in this case: unequal levels of service, preferential treatment, crude behavior, etc.
Closure finally appears to be coming to a long, drawn-out and ugly chapter of a respected private club’s history, and a more promising new chapter, albeit one with some very strange new bedfellows, now appears to be taking shape. All club managers and directors would be wise to familiarize yourselves with both parts of the story, to learn about directions you do and don’t want your clubs, and your careers, to ever take.
The first chapter ended last month, when a bankruptcy judge signed off on the purchase of the Spokane (Wash.) Country Club by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. That was the final step of a six-year legal battle that ended Spokane CC’s 117-year history of member-owned operation. And that end came about because four women among that membership successfully won a discrimination lawsuit that contended they weren’t treated as equals at the club, even though they were paying just as much as men to belong to it.
I suspect there are many clubs that could have been sued—and maybe still could be—over the same issues that were brought up in this case: unequal levels of service and preferential treatment for men with regard to tee times, locker facilities and restaurant access, being subjected to crude behavior, and so on. Spokane CC got taken to the mat because the women from its membership were represented by a lawyer who took the issue beyond the usual discrimination arguments and cast the damage in civil-rights terms, contending that the club was selling equal shares of ownership, but not extending equal ownership rights.
The club also contributed to its demise by not finding a way to pay off an initial award of $500,000 four years into the dispute. Instead, it declared bankruptcy, but that only led it down a path that culminated with this year’s auction. The Kalispel Tribe bought the club for $3 million, two-thirds of which will be paid back out in judgments for the women, and for legal fees.
For the next part of the story, the Kalispel Tribe will now make the club part of its Northern Quest entertainment group, which is centered around a resort and casino operation near the Spokane airport. The assets purchased by the Tribe include the club’s name, but early indications are that the country club will continue to operate in a manner that will still, from all outward appearances, make it seem like a typical old-line private club.
Operationally, though, it will now be typical of how today’s private clubs must be managed. Mary Schultz, the attorney for the plaintiffs, told Shawn Vestal, a columnist for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, that she only signed off on the final settlement because the Kalispels “made it very clear that if they were the purchaser, they would run [Spokane CC] in a manner that would be non-discriminatory.”
An attorney for the Tribe did tell Vestal that the Kalispels plan to offer Spokane CC members “preferential status,” although it was not clear how that would be defined.
But even if that just means members will get comped at the casino, they better make sure the stacks of chips are all even before any get passed out.