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Op-Ed: Ruben Navarette on the LPGA

By September 11, 2008No Comments

(c) 2008, The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Money talks. And it’s not choosy about what language it uses to get its point across. Capitalism has the uncanny ability to help the misguided find their way. The latest beneficiary is the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which — in response to pressure from corporate sponsors — has taken a mulligan after a  poorly conceived English-only policy that sounded like gibberish.
     Last month, the LPGA — under the stewardship of Commissioner Carolyn Bivens — announced that starting next year, it would require all players to speak English during pro-am competitions, trophy presentations and interviews with the news media. There would even be a test of English-speaking ability. Those who failed would be fined, possibly even suspended.
     Sportswriters, television commentators and newspaper editorial pages blasted the idea. A headline in The Boston Globe declared, “LPGA way out of bounds.” An editorial in The New York Times called the policy “discriminatory” and “self-destructive.” Stars of the game also chimed in. Lorena Ochoa of Guadalajara, Mexico, one of the top female golfers in the world, described the policy as “a little drastic” and submitted that golfers should be judged only by their ability on the course. She also suggested that many international players were already making an effort to learn English to communicate with other players, and they didn’t need to be coerced.
     Speaking of coercion, those who support so-called “official English” laws — requiring that, for instance, state and local government documents be printed in English — claim there’s a difference between what they advocate and more punitive English-only policies like the one the LPGA tried to implement. If so, it’s a semantic one. The concepts blend together when someone defies an “official English” policy or statute and they’re punished for it.
     But what the LPGA had in mind was not just an extension of the English-only debate in the United States. That’s a domestic argument about what language Americans should speak. The LPGA wanted to extend that argument to foreigners. Its policy was obviously aimed at the association’s 121 international players who come from 26 different countries. After all, one imagines that the American players currently on the LPGA tour speak English just fine.
      Usually, “English-only” has become synonymous with “anti-Spanish,” singling out Hispanics. Yet those who follow golf suggested that the LPGA was cracking down on another minority: Asians.
     More than a third of the international players are from South Korea, and some of them are among the best in the game. That got me thinking that maybe the LPGA policy was in response to the grumblings of U.S. players who tend to finish way down the leader board. If Koreans can’t be intimidated on the golf course, maybe they can be intimidated off.
     The policy wasn’t cultural or personal, Bivens assured her critics. It was just business, an acknowledgment that fluency in English is crucial to golf’s promotion and marketing efforts.
     So now playing golf isn’t just about putting a little white ball into a cup on the green. It’s about helping to make greenbacks for the sport.
     I’m all for that. But, with more international players in the game these days, and more opportunities to promote and market American sports and athletes overseas, perhaps this is not the best time for an English-only policy. Making money is one thing; leaving money on the table is another.
     Besides, while some who supported the policy tried to suggest that the idea had come from corporate sponsors, recent events suggest otherwise. Corporations who bankroll golf tournaments were not shy about communicating their displeasure over the English-only policy, perhaps fearing that some of the fallout would damage their brands around the world. A spokesman for State Farm Insurance confessed to being “dumbfounded” by the policy and said the company was re-evaluating its sponsorship. Other companies sent similar signals.
     That’s all it took. The LPGA recently announced it was backing off. Bivens said that the association would issue a revised policy by the end of the year, one that won’t include suspensions but might still include fines.
     That’s not much of an improvement. Let me say it in plain English: Either Bivens gets rid of the English-only policy, every last bit of it, or the LPGA should get rid of her.

     Ruben Navarrette’s e-mail address