GORDON WHITE: Foreign Concept: 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.
But Seve and I got along very well from the start and we have been friends ever since. He now speaks English with a delightful accent while I still can't speak Spanish.
Maybe we would never have seen Seve win two Masters, four other PGA Tour events and make good on those spectacular trouble shots he was known for if he had to speak English before teeing up on the PGA Tour 30 years ago. Seve might never have made it to the World Golf Hall of Fame without that pair of Masters triumphs.
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. 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 6 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, the LPGA may require certain of its foreign players, the South Koreans in particular, to speak English well enough to please and entertain executives from companies that sponsor LPGA events.
This misguided move by the oldest and most successful women's professional sports organization in the country is to be implemented some time next year, according to Golfweek magazine which first reported the new language requirement on its Web site late last month.
Not only is this a vicious bit of discrimination against talented foreign golfers but it will, apparently, be administered in an offensively arbitrary fashion. LPGA officials will determine, through observation, just which non-American LPGA members do not speak English well enough to satisfy their strange, new standards. Those players and not all foreign LPGA members will be selected for the English oral evaluations.
It was reported Friday that the LPGA will revise the policy that will not include penalties for golfers.
According to LPGA officials, the intent is 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.
LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens, once a member of the newspaper industry, and Deputy Commissioner Libba Galloway, a Duke law graduate, deny that this language standard is aimed at South Koreans. They say it is 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 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. Ms. Ochoa speaks excellent English as does Annika Sorrenstam of Sweden who preceded Ms. Ochoa as No. 1 in the world. No language tests for these two wonderful golfers.
There are 121 foreign players on the LPGA tour, 45 of whom are South Koreans. Seven of the current top 20 LPGA players are Korean and three others among the top 20 also come from Asian countries.
Not since many of the big pro sports leagues and Southern universities finally ended their discrimination against minorities, blacks in particular, during the second half of the 20th century, has any professional sports organization instituted such a backward, un-American and discriminatory rule as this poorly disguised attempt to oust Korean and other successful women golfers from the American 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 1960's and 1970's. 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 that the ban was lifted the following year and a foreign team has met an American team for the Little League World Series championship every year since.
If the LPGA goes through with this new language rule the chances seem good there will be one or more lawsuits brought by foreign players. They may claim, among other things, discrimination and unlawful attempts to prevent them from earning a living. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Many legal experts claim language and national origin are one and the same.
However, the LPGA is an organization of self employed athletes, not necessarily similar to a company that hires workers. No one, including lawyers, can predict just how courts will respond to such a case.
There is a bit of hope that the LPGA will back off this issue as a result of extremely wide spread revulsion expressed against the policy in recent days. Most important of all, however, may be that LPGA sponsors are not expressing great support for the English tests so far. These are the folks who have a lot more to be concerned with than whether or not a female golfer can talk a lot with the CEO of XYZ Company on Wednesday when he or she should be back in the office instead of playing hooky.
Of the 37 LPGA sanctioned tournaments in 2008, seven have been played on foreign soil with five more scheduled for outside the United States in coming weeks. There will be one each in China, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Singapore.
Yet the LPGA has not made any move to require all its members be proficient in the native language of any of those countries.
In fact I have doubts about the English speaking skills of many American women on the LPGA tour. They fail to know the difference between the adjective "good" and the adverb "well" while saying "you know" and "like" every few words.
Maybe if each member of the LPGA had to pass an English test it would be difficult to muster two dozen golfers to entertain the sponsors at the pro-ams.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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