GORDON WHITE: Language Rule a Bad Idea
I got to know Seve Ballesteros in 1978 when he was 21 and winner of the Greater Greensboro Open in his first year on the PGA Tour.
If required to pass an oral English language test in order to play on the American pro circuit back then, the Spaniard would have failed as surely as I would have failed a Spanish oral exam.
Seve and I got along very well from the start, never failed to communicate successfully with each other and we have been friends ever since. He now speaks English with a delightful accent while I still can't speak Spanish.
Maybe Ballesteros would never have won two Masters, four other PGA Tour events, or been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame if he had been forced to speak English properly before teeing up on the PGA Tour 30 years ago.
If Major League Baseball required its players to speak English well, imagine the many past and present Hall of Fame players and other greats who would have never made it into MLB. Most notable among current MLB all-stars with mediocre English skills is Ichiro Suzuki, the 35-year-old Japanese outfielder, who is in his eighth season with the Seattle Mariners. One of the most proficient hitters in MLB history, Ichiro is in a class with Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Pete Rose and Rod Carew.
Ichiro spoke nary a word of English when he came to MLB in 2001.
Think of all the excellent Latin-American players who would have been barred from MLB if they had been required to speak English before playing in the big leagues.
What would an English language mandate do to pro tennis where so many foreigners dominate the sport?
Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 inch Chinese player with the Houston Rockets, would never have made it to the National Basketball Association six years ago if he had to speak English when joining the NBA. Yao speaks English more than adequately now.
But along comes the Ladies Professional Golf Association to dispel any thought that athletic competition and its competitors and associations are the meritocracy we all thought they were. In a chilling and unprecedented move last month, the LPGA directed that certain of its many foreign players, South Koreans in particular, speak English well enough to please and entertain executives from companies that sponsor LPGA events or face suspension from the tour.
This misguided move by the oldest and most successful women's professional sports organization in the country was to be implemented some time next year, according to Golfweek magazine which first reported the new language requirement on its Web site two weeks ago.
Not only was this a vicious bit of discrimination against talented foreign golfers but it was to be administered in an offensively arbitrary fashion. LPGA officials would determine, through observation, which non-American LPGA members did not speak English well enough to satisfy this strange, new standard. Those players, but not all foreign LPGA members, would have been selected for the English oral evaluations.
If they failed such verbal tests, those players would be suspended by the LPGA.
No such ridiculous and jingoistic a rule has ever been proposed by any major professional sports organization involving multi-national competitors.
Fortunately, it was such an extremely foolish rule by the LPGA that it caused a powerful reaction from important factions of American society. Strong criticism was expressed on the editorial pages of The New York Times and many other major newspapers condemning the language requirement. Sharply worded articles in Sports Illustrated and numerous golf periodicals were part of the outcry against the LPGA action. Television and radio talking heads joined in a chorus of condemnation of the LPGA leadership.
As a result, the LPGA Commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, caved in and announced two days ago that the LPGA was not going to proceed with the punishment aspect of the English-speaking rule. Instead, she said the LPGA will come up with some other way to induce foreign pro women golfers on the LPGA tour to learn English well enough so they can communicate with the fat cat sponsors backing LPGA tournaments.
According to Bivens and her minions, the original intent was to make LPGA players capable of exchanging niceties and more than just "hello" and "good shot" with those sponsor execs who play in the weekly pro-am events that precede by one day the start of almost every LPGA event.
I played in many of these pro-ams over the years with foreign women golfers such as Japan's Ayako Okamoto, who did not speak English in the early 1980s when she arrived on the LPGA tour. I thoroughly enjoyed myself with her and was always able to understand her meaning at tourney press conferences such as when she was in a three-way playoff for the 1987 United States Women's Open title with Laura Davies, the winner, and JoAnne Carner at Plainfield CC in New Jersey.
Winner of a dozen LPGA events, Ayako did her best talking with her golf clubs as was the case with the best of the golfers on the LPGA tour years ago. It is the same today. Play well and you will succeed no matter how you treat the King's English.
Commissioner Bivens, once a newspaper executive, and Deputy Commissioner Libba Galloway, a Duke Law graduate, deny that this language standard was aimed at South Koreans. They keep claiming it was created to help all foreign players on their tour get along with sponsors and be able to better entertain these big spenders.
But it is ironic that such a language rule would emerge toward the end of an LPGA season during which each of the four women's majors was won by a foreign golfer. Three of them were from Asia, including two South Koreans.
The women's first major of each year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, was won by Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, who is the world's No. 1 ranked woman golfer. Ochoa speaks excellent English as does Annika Sorenstam of Sweden who preceded Ochoa as No. 1 in the world. There would have been no language tests for these two wonderful golfers.
There are 121 foreign players who are active members of the LPGA, including 45 South Koreans. Seven of the current top 20 LPGA money winners are South Koreans and three others among the top 20 also come from Asian countries. This un-American rule was a poorly disguised attempt to oust Korean and other successful foreign women golfers from the LPGA tour.
Could it be that American players resent too many victories by Koreans? Maybe the LPGA leadership should be telling American players, "Shut up and go out there and win."
This reminds me of the Little League, whose adult leaders were disgruntled by a string of foreign teams winning their World Series year after year during the 1960s and 1970s. Taiwan, in particular, won the Little League World Series too many times to please these xenophobic people so they barred all foreign teams from the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in 1975. This caused such a hue and cry across this nation and around the world that the ban was lifted the following year. A foreign team has met an American team in the Little League World Series championship game every year since.
I am pleased that press, radio and TV folks got up on their stumps and yelled to high heaven about the LPGA's big mistake before it was too late.
A pair of California legislators announced they were going to look into the constitutionality of the LPGA English-speaking requirements. They also said they would not be satisfied until the LPGA abolishes completely any English language regulations for its members and punishments of any kind against those who do not speak English well. One of them also demanded the LPGA apologize immediately to all of its foreign members for having threatened them with such discrimination.
But there might also have been some strong behind the scenes words to Commissioner Bivens from those sponsors she wanted so much to please. Instead she may have scared them when they saw they were the reason for a poorly conceived rule that caused such a strong negative reaction. That's not too good for selling their widgets.
Bivens got off track there and does not ever seem to see the real mission for the top women golfers, who could be such a help in promoting better conditions for female participation in the sport of golf.
As The New York Times editorial said, "Women have been fighting against discrimination in golf for decades. For the LPGA to impose discriminatory rules on its own members is not only offensive, it's self destructive."
For once, Bivens listened.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-
mail is email@example.com.
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