LPGA language policy is a double bogey

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This just in (well, a couple of days ago): the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) "has warned its members that they must become conversant in English by 2009 or face suspension". According to the NYT article, this policy is "believed to be the only such policy in a major sport". Three other North America-based major sports organizations (Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association) have no such policy: "Given the diverse nature of our sport, we don't require that players speak English," says MLB; "This is not something we have contemplated," says the NBA.

Many of the comments on the article are crying foul, claiming discrimination, xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, whathaveyou. The common denominator of all of these evils, ignorance, is almost certainly at play in the decision to adopt this policy as opposed to other ways to get what the LPGA claims to be aiming for with the policy: more sponsorship opportunities. Unlike larger, better-established sports organizations like MLB, the NHL, and the NBA, the LPGA "is a group of individual players from diverse backgrounds whose success as an organization depends on its ability to attract sponsorships from companies looking to use the tour for corporate entertainment and advertisement." The geniuses at the LPGA appear to think that the money will flow a lot better if only their excellent South Korean players can answer post-game interview questions in English.

I found the last paragraph of the article particularly remarkable:

"This is not really an English-only requirement," [Arthur S. Leonard, a professor of law at New York Law School and an expert on employment issues] said, noting that players would not be required to speak only English.

That's about the narrowest definition of "English-only" I've ever heard. I think that even the most ardent members of the English-only movement would look sideways at someone who would want not only that everyone speak English but that nobody speak any other language in addition to English.

He added, "If the L.P.G.A. can show that English proficiency is a relevant qualification to competing in a professional golf tournament in the U.S., they would have a defense to any claim that they are discriminating unlawfully."

By the LPGA's own admission, the primary purpose of the policy is to create more sponsorship opportunities. IMHO, if that purpose can't be used as the legal defense for the policy, then maybe the policy just needs to be rethought.

[ Hat tip to Ralph Hickock. ]

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30 Comments »

  1. meara said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    He may be referring to "English-only" as in places where jobs have tried to require employees to only speak English on the job, even with each other. In this case, the LPGA would not be requiring that. It would allow the members to speak, say, Korean, with each other, or to sponsors that were Korean, thus it would not be an English-only job in that sense.

  2. Rubrick said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

    I think that even the most ardent members of the English-only movement would look sideways at someone who would want not only that everyone speak English but that nobody speak any other language in addition to English.

    I suspect that you give these "most ardent members" more credit than they deserve. I've no doubt there are plenty of people who would love to ban other languages outright if they could.

  3. Chad Nilep said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

    I would refer you to the case of Garcia v. Spun Steak Company.

    "In 1990, the Spun Steak Company adopted an English-only rule in hopes to promote racial harmony. … Garcia and Buitrago received warnings shortly after the rule was adopted for speaking Spanish during working hours and filed charges of discrimination many months later."

  4. Jason F. Siegel said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

    Actually, the policy seems sensible to me. Many corporations have official languages that employees should be conversant in, and the LPGA is doing its part to help its players learn the language it's requiring, since, according to the article, "The L.P.G.A. started a program in 2006 to help international players learn English and transition into American culture." What's interesting to me is that the optional program has turned mandatory in spite of or because of its success so far. If it is so successful, why not take those players who are doing well in the program and market them to American audiences? (I suspect it's because the best players aren't necessarily the best speakers of English)

    Also, I thought that the derisive tone that this post took was particularly harsh. After all, why shouldn't being able to give post-game interviews in the language of the network increase sponsorship opportunities? Much of the appeal appears to lie not the raw athleticism of the competitors (horse-racing it ain't),but in the personalities and rivalries of the players themselves.

  5. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 11:09 pm

    The reverse of this is perhaps more interesting. What if the French Open in tennis required all players to speak French? I know most all F1 racers speak English though I don't know if that's a requirement of the division or just the nature of the sport that it's easiest to do well if you know it.

  6. the other Mark P said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 2:05 am

    "Unlike larger, better-established sports organizations like MLB, the NHL, and the NBA"

    It has nothing to do with size or age. These are team sports. They have people who can front for the team. They also suffer if team-mates cannot converse, so have every reason to push a common language themselves, without any input from the leagues. When you see coaches from these sports refusing to learn English, then I believe you may have a point. (It does happen in international soccer that coaches do not speak the local language, and it's almost always an issue for fans and media.)

    "What if the French Open in tennis required all players to speak French?"

    Some sports do — say sumo and Japanese. They remain local.

    The LPGA wants to ensure a common language precisely because they are international.

    It's not that big a deal. All international sports have to have a standard language — how else could matches between different countries be played. (In some cases, such as Switzerland, it is even an internal issue.) Rugby is refereed in English — you learn it or you don't understand what the referee is saying.

  7. Bill Poser said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 3:38 am

    Apparently it isn't just a matter of post game interviews. One article I read said that wealthy supporters of the LPGA like to have lunches and so forth with leading players and don't like it when they can't converse with them. I would think that it would afford them an excellent opportunity to practice their Korean, but that's me.

  8. Andy J said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 4:26 am

    Excuse my ignorance of the LPGA, but does this organisation aspire to be the world body for female professional golfers? Because if so, the parochial English Only connection is then not so significant, and the policy might be more in line with the recognition of english as a de facto universal language. (cf airline pilots being required to speak english to communicate with air traffic control worldwide).

  9. Karen said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 5:36 am

    No, the A in LPGA is America. So it's not any sort of world body. It's just the tour where women golfers can make the most money.

  10. Karen said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 5:39 am

    I meant to add, the LPGA is always scrambling for sponsors to get those purses higher, so if having golfers who can talk to rich folks WILL bring in more bucks (or even MIGHT) I'm particularly surprised that they might decide to force their members to learn English – or play on the Asian (or South American or African) circuit for much less money.

  11. Karen said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 5:40 am

    And of course, now that I'm waking up, no the A is not for America (it's Association, as I knew perfectly well when I typed that previous sentence…). But still, it's a US organization, not a world-wide one.

  12. mollymooly said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 6:45 am

    According to Wikipedia "In 2008, three [LPGA Tour] tournaments will be held in Mexico and one each in Singapore, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, China, South Korea, and Japan." I imagine LPGA rules will be illegal in most of those countries. It might be an opportunity for the Ladies European Tour and the Asian tours to poach (back) some talent. "Of the 33 events in 2006, only seven were won by Americans"

  13. Andy J said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    Thanks to Karen and Mollymooly for clarifying (I think) the position of the LPGA in international golf. So what does 'conversant' mean here? Having checked about a dozen online dictionaries, the consensus meaning seems to be 'familiar with [through study]', 'knowledgeable about", "having experience [of]', 'well-informed about'. Only the American Heritage Dictionary comes up with "able to converse knowledgeably [about/on a subject]".
    So really I guess that if these foreign players have watched plenty of US television, with or without subtitles, they should be familiar with english and know that it is spoken natively in several countries, and thus it could be said that they are conversant with english. It would appear that it doesn't mean that they are able to speak english, though.

  14. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    Does anyone else think that the reasoning behind the rules change is counterintuitive? Not all advertising companies use English as their primary language. Wouldn't non-American companies (like, oh, I don't know, Rolex or Maserati or the largest company in Japan: Toyota) be LESS likely to advertise if they know that its citizens are being forced to abandon their native tongue?

    And this statement: "The L.P.G.A. started a program in 2006 to help international players learn English and transition into American culture." makes it even worse, no? It's one thing to expect a player to be conversant, but they go right out and say that they're trying transition golfers into American culture. It sounds like the LPGA is turning into the Borg — resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.

  15. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

    the other Mark P said:

    "What if the French Open in tennis required all players to speak French?"

    Some sports do — say sumo and Japanese. They remain local.

    The LPGA wants to ensure a common language precisely because they are international.

    I'm not sure I understand the logic of this statement. Are you saying that Sumo requiring all players to speak Japanese is why the sport remains local? If that is the case, wouldn't requiring English therefore mean that the LPGA would also then "remain local"? I'm also not clear on what the point was about what would happen if the French Open required its participants to speak French, then. Would it make it international or keep it local?

  16. Eric Baković said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    @ the other Mark P:

    All international sports have to have a standard language — how else could matches between different countries be played. [...] Rugby is refereed in English — you learn it or you don't understand what the referee is saying.

    As you yourself pointed out earlier in your comment, golf isn't a team sport (and there's no referee). And as the article I linked to makes clear (and as I repeated in my post), the point of the policy has nothing to do with game play itself. So even if we could agree that "[a]ll international sports have to have a standard language" for the reasons you mention, the argument would not apply to the LPGA.

  17. Eric Baković said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    @ Karen: Wake up! English is not the official language of (the United States of) America.

  18. Karen said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    No, of course it's not. But the question was, is the LPGA a world body. It's not.

  19. Eric Baković said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    @ Jason F. Siegel:

    Also, I thought that the derisive tone that this post took was particularly harsh. After all, why shouldn't being able to give post-game interviews in the language of the network increase sponsorship opportunities?

    You're right, the way I phrased that "geniuses" sentence in particular was pretty harsh. I didn't mean to imply that this policy could not possibly be effective in its goal of creating/increasing sponsorship opportunities, but I did mean to emphasize that perhaps the LPGA ought to think of "other ways" to achieve their goals.

  20. Eric Baković said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    @ Karen: I see now, you were replying to Andy J. My bad, I guess I'm not quite awake myself.

  21. mollymooly said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

    "Rugby is refereed in English — you learn it or you don't understand what the referee is saying." — is this really true? I would be surprised. Although, rugby referees give an high degree of running feedback to players, so it's less implausible than for most sports.

    The most international sport of all, soccer, has no such requirement, though usually the organisers try to ensure the referee and assistants speak a common language. Although, after a controversial match in 1966, in which the Argentina captain was sent off after demanding an interpreter, led to the introduction of the yellow/red card system.

  22. Eric Baković said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

    Thank you, mollymooly, for pointing to this pertinent fact about soccer's yellow/red card system. For interested readers, the Wikipedia article on penalty cards explains in some more detail.

  23. JK said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 5:16 pm

    I thought this comment from the NYU law professor was interesting: "If the L.P.G.A. can show that English proficiency is a relevant qualification to competing in a professional golf tournament in the U.S., they would have a defense to any claim that they are discriminating unlawfully." As others have noted, English proficiency is decidedly not a relevant qualification to actually competing in a professional golf tournament. I'm not sure, however, that the professor's characterization of the law is accurate.

    Frankly, this strikes me as a bluff. I doubt the LPGA will actually suspend top golfers who fail to learn English. Such a move would destroy the credibility of the association with fans of women's golf, without whom there will be no corporate sponsors, and who presumably are more interested in the LPGA promoting and fostering excellence in the game of golf than in the speaking of conversational English.

    Also, I note that the LPGA has gone out of its way to appeal to Japanese language fans:

    http://www.uslpga.jp/

  24. the other Mark P said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

    "If that is the case, wouldn't requiring English therefore mean that the LPGA would also then "remain local"?"

    No, because we all know that English is the de facto second language of the world. If it was any other language, then the prohibition would be very limiting, but it isn't any other language.

    The logic is the same as with web-sites. If you want your site to reach as much of the world as possible, and not just your local language group, then you have a copy in English. Not Korean, Japanese or Spanish, but English.

    It's quite useful that the world has a de facto common language. Certainly more useful than not having one.

    Usually there are endless complaints on this site about how monolingual English speakers are. Yet when it is suggested that equally monolingual Koreans, Japanese etc are obliged to learn a second language, we have people leaping to their defence. (You will find that very few Europeans will bat an eyelid about this policy — they know all too well the benefits of learning English.)

    Making people engaged in commerce learn the common language of commerce is hardly unusual. No odder than forcing diplomats in previous ages to speak French.

  25. JK said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

    @the other Mark P:

    I don't think anyone is disputing that it's not sometimes a useful policy to force certain people engaged in certain kinds of work to learn languages, English particularly, that are commonly spoken by people of many nationalities.

    But that's not the issue here. The issue here is whether the inability to speak conversational English should bar someone from playing professional women's golf in the United States at LPGA events (which unquestionably offers the most competitive assemblage of women's golf talent anywhere on the planet). If we assume that the default norm is that language abilities should not preclude one from participating in any activity unless certain language skills are absolutely necessary for the activity, the LPGA's argument — that conversational English is important to please corporate sponsors and wealthy benefactors — is pretty weak. For one thing, as many have observed, speaking English has absolutely nothing to do with being excellent at playing golf. For another, there are other solutions to the LPGA's perceived problem; for instance, non-English speakers can use interpreters to communicate with the English-speaking media and benefactors (as many non-English speaking professional athletes in the U.S. do), or the LPGA could do more to attract corporate sponsors from the home countries of non-English speaking stars in the league.

    While I agree with you that as a general rule it is not unusual to force certain people to learn a common language, I think it is highly unusual to do so in professional sport (and the article seems to bear this point out). And, even though I think this particular move is a bluff, the LPGA's decision could be rather sinister. Maybe the policy is motivated by powers in the LPGA that are weary of seeing golfers from East Asia beat the pants off golfers from the United States and Europe, and have enacted a policy they believe will help solve that perceived problem. I don't know about you, but don't think that's fair play.

  26. Stephen Jones said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 6:56 am

    There's a debate going on at the moment because Sri Lanka's new spin bowling sensation, Ajantha, doesn't speak English and gets the captain to translate for him in press conferences (why the cricket press conferences in Lanka aren't in Sinhala and Tamil is another matter).

    There's even been ridiculous nonsense spouted about how 'English is the language of cricket". However the Sri Lankan ambassador to Italy waded in with the a superb hatchet job on the language snobs (kulu suddhus he calls them.) The article is well worth reading, and I hope it is not behind a subscription. If it is, tell me and I'll cut and paste it.
    http://www.island.lk/2008/08/29/sports8.html

  27. the other Mark P said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

    "that conversational English is important to please corporate sponsors and wealthy benefactors — is pretty weak"

    JK: I agree with much of what you write, but I suspect this might be an error.

    It is common that the dominant players in the world of women's golf have been non-Americans (Sorenstam etc). The advent of a non-English-speaking female equivalent of Tiger Woods would be a problem for the LPGA. The concept of a small group of Koreans (say) who dominate the tournaments, but were incapable of communicating except in formal situations via interpreters, would be a disaster.

    I might be wrong. But in the LPGA's situation would you take the risk — solely in order to buff your mult-cultural credentials?

  28. Ansley said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

    I think the problem lies herein: The PGA has no such similar rule. Angel Cabrera, prior to learning English, gave interviews through an interpreter. Other players have as well. The LPGA is like a fish out of water on this one.

    The tricky thing is the timing. Annika just retired and there's a whole group of oustanding ROK players dominating the field. It's going to be really hard for the LPGA to avoid looking like they are targeting the South Korean players. The LPGA wants and needs a star, a spokesmodel, and one who speaks English. If they have to take away a few tour cards to get one, by golly…

    The interesting thing is Korean children start studying English in primary school. Most students study additionally in the hagwon (a kind of private tutoring). My experience traveling in Korea has shown me that most South Koreans under age thirty speak (or at least understand) passable English. Of course, it's more difficult to speak a language you are uncomfortable with on television, with your sponsor, or when you are tired after playing 72 holes of golf.

    What I'm getting at is, the Korean players will drive themselves to learn better English. If they want to be the face of Rolex or sell Samsung phones in the US they'll find their TV voice. The LPGA doesn't need to make some senseless and (arguably) discriminatory rule. Why not let the market take care of this on its own? Even if the LPGA is an American orgainization, it certainly has an international field and following.

    This move by the LPGA isn't going to garner any points on the world stage, and it shouldn't attract many fans at home.

  29. Prince said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

    Thanks God the LPGA reneged on this outrageous policy. It's interesting that it took 2 politicians threatening boycott of LPGA in California, and many sponsors weighing in as well, for them to see how idiotic this policy was. Next time LPGA, maybe you should think twice about the possible outcomes of such policies before trying to make them official.

  30. The Constructivist said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 2:24 am

    The problem with the policy from the start was the threat of suspensions. Bivens's way-too-late clarification that she wasn't expecting fluency or even proficiency, just functionality, couldn't disguise the fundamental problem with announcing a high-stakes test in an area the LPGA has no expertise in developing or administering, one that could have barred this season's rookie of the year (if Na Yeon Choi beats out Ya Ni Tseng, that is; Bivens went out of the way to praise Tseng's post-LPGA Championship win "Dream come true" as a perfect example of functionality) at the end of next season and sent Women's British Open champion Ji-Yai Shin straight into the arms of the JLPGA for a couple of years or longer.

    I haven't seen anyone disputing that it's in any player's best interest to become multilingual or that English carries more benefits with it than most any other language. Those who follow women's golf know that Korean companies have been doing more to promote English language acquisition by international players and cross-cultural understanding than just about anyone else associated with the Tour. In fact, players' own initiatives have resulted in no more than a half dozen to a dozen even being at risk of suspension in the first place. So why not have crafted this from the start as a ramping up of the programs already in place, instituted a cross-cultural two-way mentoring program pairing American and international players, gotten Lorena Ochoa and Se Ri Pak on your side, and let them talk with the mostly younger international players who could benefit the most from learning better English? You don't need a policy to solve every potential problem. Especially one as badly-thought-through as this one had been.

    There are plenty of things good for the players that the Tour saw no need to resort to threats on. It was Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa who raised the bar on fitness, not Carolyn Bivens or any of her predecessors. I'm glad she and her staff decided to rethink this, even if in the end it was State Farm's public condemnation and the CA legislators and activists' threatened actions that seemed to carry the most weight. And perhaps that the Tour gets a good deal of TV money from Korea and Japan.

    There's little the Tour can do with the fact that Lorena Ochoa's top 3 competitors right now are Ya Ni Tseng, Ji-Yai Shin, and Paula Creamer besides do a better job of marketing the emerging rivalry, short of Jan Stephenson's quota system, which would backfire anyway, prompting the various Asian tours to team up and offer more tournaments and bigger purses than the LPGA. Michelle Wie is not going to be the LPGA's Tiger Woods anytime soon–it's not even clear whether she'll submit her Q-School application before the 9/9 deadline.

    What the Tour could do is put a little more pressure on TV and print media to put their coverage where their mouths have been and start paying serious attention to the top LPGA pros, wherever they come from. Golf Channel is notorious for showing as few foreign faces as possible, and ESPN only looks better by comparison. AP doesn't even have a regular LPGA beat writer (which is actually better than when Doug Ferguson was covering the Tour). Maybe the Biv culd even shame U.S. tv into offering a fraction of what Korean and Japanese tv are sending the LPGA's way….

    On a side note, sumo has become much more international in recent years. When I was in Fukuoka, there were all kinds of controversies over the Mongolian and other foreigners doing so well at the highest levels of the sport.

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