In the community of golf, Ben Wright, the CBS golf broadcaster and longtime golf writer, is invited to the best parties. He's an amiable, well-spoken man bursting with opinions and stories, delivered in a lovely British accent that isn't quite Oxbridge, but close. He describes his mother as a "minor Scottish aristocrat," and he prepared for London University at an all-boys English public school, Felsted. He has spent four decades in golf's elite circles. Everything about him contributes to a veneer of refinement. His boss's boss, David Kenin, the president of CBS Sports, calls Wright "a complex, sophisticated guy." John Bentley Wright, corpulent and jolly, highly compensated and often smelling very good, calls himself "a ham."
Every so often he slips up, and a coarser element of his personality, a Fleet Street side, emerges. In a recent interview with SI he described a former editor of his at the Financial Times as "a raging fag." (And he followed that with "I have nothing against homosexuals.") In 1992, writing in Southern Links, an American golf magazine now known as Links, Wright alleged that Muirfield's club secretary demanded "girlie pictures" in exchange for press credentials for the 1959 Walker Cup, which Wright was to cover for the London Daily Mirror. "I pleaded that I had no access to the newspaper's pin-up photographs, which were in any case nothing like as daring as the bare-breasted lovelies daily exposed nowadays in the British tabloids," he wrote. Later, to settle a libel suit, Wright dispatched a letter of apology and a $1,000 check to the secretary, the late Paddy Hanmer. "Seldom right but never in doubt"—that's what they say about Wright, good-naturedly, in the CBS trailers.
It was in a CBS trailer—on the second Thursday of May, shortly before noon, on the grounds of the DuPont Country Club, in Wilmington, Del., site of the 1995 McDonald's LPGA Championship—that Wright met Valerie Helmbreck, a reporter on the News Journal, a Delaware newspaper. They spent a half hour together, and neither his life nor hers has been the same since.
Helmbreck began her story, which ran on the front page of the News Journal on Friday, May 12, with a quote from Wright: "Let's face facts here. Lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf."
He was also quoted as saying, "They're going to a butch game and that furthers the bad image of the game." He was quoted as saying that homosexuality on the women's tour "is not reticent. It's paraded. There's a defiance in them in the last decade." And, "Women are handicapped by having boobs. It's not easy for them to keep their left arm straight, and that's one of the tenets of the game. Their boobs get in the way."
Wright, the story said, believes that the LPGAs homosexual image hinders corporate support; that the tour's leading players, including Michelle McGann and Laura Davies, lack charisma; and that modern women pros are wrong to emphasize power over finesse.
And with that, all hell broke loose.
Before the story was published, word of the interview reached Wright's boss, Frank Chirkinian, the executive producer of golf for CBS, who was in Wilmington. Early that afternoon, Chirkinian called Helmbreck at the News Journal and told her that they needed to meet. Helmbreck, who did not know Chirkinian, asked him to spell his name and reveal his title. He ignored her request, and the terse conversation ended when Helmbreck hung up on him. The story had been out only a few hours on Friday morning when Wright, who is 63, was urged to leave Wilmington and go to CBS headquarters, in New York. There, for six hours, Wright and Kenin discussed the interview and the story it produced. Each man was accompanied by a lawyer. At the News Journal on Friday, Helmbreck and her editors received scores of calls, some from readers voicing opinions but many more from newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television programs, seeking comment. Helmbreck wouldn't talk, and the newspaper's editor said the paper stood by the accuracy of its story.
Late on Friday, Kenin released his findings: "I am convinced that the offensive statements attributed to Mr. Wright were not made." He also said that both Wright and CBS Sports had "been done a grave injustice in this matter." Wright offered two releases of his own. In a statement for reporters, Wright said he never used the words "boobs" or "butch" with Helmbreck. He maintained he never said lesbianism on the women's tour is "paraded" or that lesbians were bad for the image of the game. He wrote that he would "not discuss lesbianism with a stranger, just as I would not discuss my three divorces with a stranger." In a statement for the players, posted in the DuPont Country Club locker room Friday morning, Wright wrote, "I am disgusted at the pack of lies and distortion that was attributed to me." He said the same thing on CBS's Saturday coverage of the tournament. Looking directly into the camera and perspiring, Wright called Helmbreck's story "not only totally inaccurate but extremely distasteful."
Helmbreck's piece, an 1,100-word story in a cautious, responsible small-state daily, had all the elements needed to ignite a modern press brushfire: gay sex, male chauvinism, political incorrectness, sports, network television and a faintly famous figure—a TV personality—to wrap the whole thing around. The New York Post captured the moment in a five-word headline for its Saturday paper: THE BOOB ON THE TUBE.