On August 27, Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour shocked its members. Commissioner Carol Bivens issued a statement through ESPN’s Bob Harig stating, “players who do not speak English will be suspended” beginning in 2009.
At first thought, one might think that this is not such a big deal- until you look at the fact that 45 of the 141 current LPGA Tour members are Korean. Almost all of the 45 Korean-born players do not speak English due to the fact that they have recently immigrated to the United States to pursue a professional career in golf. In addition to the influx of Korean-born players, the LPGA membership has representation from 26 different nations. While the LPGA is an American golf tour, these statistics suggest that it could definitely have some international appeal.
Two Sides to the Issue:
1. English as a Beneficial Business Tool
In the game of golf, the skill and competition equate to only half of the attraction. Style and sponsorships have been fused together to make professional golf an enormous marketing domain. Proponents of the “English Rule” claim that English in post-round interviews will allow sponsors to maximize their investment in a player’s ability. Even some international players support this belief. One such player is Seon-Hwa Lee who issued a report through the Associated Press, claims, “Everyone can do a simple interview in English. The economy is bad and we are losing sponsors.”
The notion of losing sponsorships may be en route to becoming a real threat to the economic growth of the tour. Among the winners on the LPGA tour this season, Ji Young Oh (LPGA State Farm Classic), Inbee Park (U.S. Women’s Open), and Eun-Hee Ji (Wegman’s LPGA) are just a few Korean-born players that have enjoyed recent success. If there is a perceived inability for them to communicate in English in a post-victory interview, would this hurt their marketability as athletes?
2. Workplace Discrimination
Opponents of the “English Rule” argue that enforcement of such a policy is workplace discrimination. Within a couple days of the announcement, the LPGA was spurned with a plethora of threats on behalf of many legal and legislative authorities. One such agency to issue a threat was the Office of California State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo).
Yee’s office issued a statement on September 4, stating, “We will continue to fight to ensure this discrimination ends. If necessary, we will picket LPGA events, urge sponsors to withdraw support, go to the courts, introduce legislation, or do whatever else it takes for the LPGA to rescind this policy. Our nation has made great strides in ensuring civil rights for all; we should not be taking steps backward.
Now, those who question the authority of a state legislator in such a global issue need to consider this: California is one of the top states that hosts many female amateur and professional events year in and year out, in addition to being home to many sponsorship powerhouses, including Taylor-Made/Adidas, Callaway and Cobra Golf, just to name a few. Given all of this, Yee may have more power than his opponents think.
From an intended business tool, opponents of the LPGA’s “English Rule” have turned this into a battle over Civil Rights and Discrimination.
Amidst a flurry of criticism in the weeks after the announcement, Commissioner Bivens issued a statement to the Associated Press on September 7 that stated her intentions are to retract the possibility of suspension. However, Bivens has made it clear that her and the LPGA Directors want to see more English in the game. Implementing such a policy would most likely be done by using an oral exam. In addition, Bivens has not ruled out fining players in 2009, according to the report.
Just a month ago, the LPGA began a quest looking to upgrade their status from just another golf tour treading water. Rather than doing that, they entered a civil rights struggle that Bivens and her entourage were not ready to take on. This begs the question, can businesses that take huge capital risks enjoy the latitude of decision-making or is the simple threat of a lawsuit beginning to infringe on our liberties?