Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No, Tell Us What You Really Think

I'll be the first to admit I was dodging some key issues yesterday by attempting a humorous response to the LPGA's new non-golf-based membership criterion for non-native English speakers, namely, that they must prove themselves able to hold a casual conversation with a native speaker in a pro-am or meet-and-greet and do interviews and victory speeches in English without the aid of a translator--or face suspension until they can.

Let's dispense with the obvious ironies quickly. The policy was introduced in universalist terms, at least in the way Beth Ann Baldry summarized it at the start of her Golfweek article, but its targets are only those international players deemed at risk of being incomprehensible to their pro-am playing partners. (Double the pleasure, double the fun: it's selective and arbitrary, high-stakes and nebulous....) If multilingualism is such a great thing, why not make it a requirement for all players? Next, Commissioner Bivens floated the trial balloon in a mandatory meeting with South Korean players last week at the Safeway Classic, but apparently her communication skills are so bad she left many players with the mistaken impression that they would be kicked out of the tour if they couldn't pass an oral exam. No, no: there's an extra level of tutoring during the suspension period--apparently, there will be list of Tour-approved golf cliches to be memorized. Finally, the effort to make monolingual American sponsors happy may produce a backlash among international sponsors. Apparently the LPGA values tournament hosts, sponsors, and fans from non-English-dominant countries for everything but their language(s).

There are subtler ironies to be enjoyed as well. Like confirmed Bivens-haters getting so outraged against this policy that they've helped to give the LPGA the best publicity it could possibly have hoped for at the start of its 2-week summer break (on the principle that any publicity is good publicity, at least). How often do Deadspin and ESPN (or even Golfweek) make anything LPGA-related one of their featured stories? Tenured radicals like me must be finding the spectacle of Main Street Republicans ("what's good for American business...") and Wall Street Republicans ("full speed ahead! globalize away!") duking it out, so to speak, as intensely as America Firsters ("English ONLY! English ONLY!") are duelling with Color-Blind Conservatives ("the ball knows no language! be like the ball!") intensely funny and eerily familiar. Just another practical seminar in the meaning of multiculturalism and globalization--popular culture and new media are once again the venue for individual and collective values-clarification.

But that's not all. Consider the potential impact on the Class of 2009. Women's British Open champion Ji-Yai Shin already has membership on the KLPGA, JLPGA, and LET, so she could put together whatever schedule she pleases next season. Before she won the WBO, her plans were to compete full-time on the JLPGA for a year or 2 before trying for the LPGA. How will this new requirement affect her scheduling plans for the next few seasons? If she isn't confident she could pass or pass out of the LPGA's oral exam by the end of the 2011 season, what's stopping her from playing fewer events than the number the LPGA will eventually have to specify to count as "being on tour" in 2009? Playing fewer events means fewer showdowns on American soil (and in front of American tv cameras) with Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, Suzann Pettersen, Ya Ni Tseng, Seon Hwa Lee, Cristie Kerr, and the rest of the top LPGA players in the post-Sorenstam Era. It means no real Rookie of the Year race with Stacy Lewis, Vicky Hurst, Mindy Kim, and a host of other talented young guns--maybe including Michelle Wie. It means less drama, less competition, and less attention for everyone on tour.

Let's say the LPGA remains the only tour in the world with this rule instead of prompting a series of similarly protectionist measures the golf world over. Doesn't this then put the LPGA at a competitive disadvantage for attracting the world's best women golfers? With the U.S. dollar depreciating against the Japanese yen, for instance, the time may not be too far away when the JLPGA not only has more tournaments than the LPGA (that's already happening this year), but also more single-season millionaires (easier to write and understand than "100 mill-yen-aires"). You can bet that as even more Korean golfers try out the JLPGA and succeed on it, more Korean sponsorship money will flow that much shorter trip eastward than all the way to Florida.

The LPGA has had a horrible time attracting more top Japanese golfers to the U.S. more regularly. When Sakura Yokomine, Miho Koga, Erina Hara, Miki Saiki, Ayako Uehara, Yuko Mitsuka, Chie Arimura, Akane Iijima, and Yukari Baba get wind of this requirement, do you think it will make them more or less likely to try the LPGA's Q-School this year? And what about Momoko Ueda (who's having about as much success in her 1st year on tour as Ai Miyazato had in her rookie season)? Do you think she's really eager to take an oral exam at the end of the 2009 season--when she may have won less money in that time than she won in 2006 alone on the JLPGA?

China, you ask? While the opening ceremonies to the Beijing Olympics suggest that a little conversational English will be no obstacle, the new LPGA policy again tips the scales in favor of emerging Chinese stars following Na Zhang and trying the KLPGA and/or JLPGA 1st. Which means more big money the LPGA could potentially lose from new sponsors there.

Heck, if the various Asian tours ever decided to get together and model themselves after the LET rather than trying to produce smaller LPGA-style national tours, the best tour in the wide world of women's golf could end up being such a "Ladies Asian Pacific Tour." Yup, the LPGA could get LAPT.

On the bright side, though, for the time being at least, Australia and New Zealand will become the temporary homes of even more young Korean golfers, immigration to the U.S. may pick up a bit from Asia and Latin America, expensive American golf academies will have to hire more ESL teachers, U.S. colleges and universities with good golf programs will see an increase in applications, enrollments, and donations, and the international golfers who don't play well enough to keep their LPGA cards will come away from their time on tour with a foundation in English that they could develop and parlay into a post-golf career as an agent, consultant, youth golf program coordinator, translator, or caddy.

So it's all good. Right?

[Update 1 (1:20 am): Geoff Shackelford and the other golf writers he's checked out suggest not. Which makes me rethink the one analogy I could come up with that would have lead me to offer qualified support for the new policy. When I taught American Studies and American literature on a Fulbright for a year in Fukuoka, Japan, I was kind of like an honored guest, so the fact that I never quite achieved a pre-schooler's grasp of Japanese after a full semester of an intensive language course at Kyushu University (in which my reawakened student survival instincts allowed me to pass with something close to an A-) was greeted with a polite "at least he's trying." But if I were, say, to try to join the faculty of a Japanese university full-time and live in Japan for more than a couple of years, wouldn't it be fair to expect my Japanese to improve to the point where, even if I were predominantly teaching American Studies in English, I'd be able to attempt explanations and clarifications to my students in Japanese and fumble my way toward participation in department and faculty meetings? Well, sure, but those are core skills for a professor. Do LPGA sponsors and tournament organizers in places with few or poor Latin American and Asian immigrant and citizen communities really believe the LPGA can convince golf media and fans that schmoozing is a core skill for a professional golfer? Oh, sorry, was that Yiddish? But you knew what I meant, right? (Really, was it? My grandparents arrived here in the midst of the 100% American movement, so made quite sure not to pass on any language but their own acquired English to their children. People will adjust, but at what cost? I learned more Yiddish from Seinfeld than my own family.)]

[Update 2 (2:15 am): Here's Ryan Ballengee's second take--precisely the qualified support for the policy I am still struggling over internally.]

[Update 3 (4:40 pm): In comments, Jennifer from Mixed Race America offers a brilliant and wide-ranging analysis of the policy and Ryan's and my responses to it. It's virtually a post of its own--a must-read.]

[Update 4 (7:26 pm): Ryan's been thinking this through further and has withdrawn even his qualified support.]

[Update 5 (8/28/08, 9:30 am): Geoff Shackelford covers the media response so I don't have to. Actually, it's pretty thoughtful. And at times very funny.]

[Update 6 (9:48 am): OK, I will link to Ron Sirak's overview of the issues.]

[Update 7 (2:46 pm): Here's Brent Kelley's take.]

[Update 8 (8/29/08, 12:20 pm): Here's a helpful study guide from Kiel Christianson.]


Jennifer said...

Hi Constructivist,
I know you wanted to nudge me to write a post about this, but the truth is, I'm immersed in the DNC so the soonest I'd get around the posting would be next week (esp. since the semester just started for me at Southern U) and so I thought I'd leave me two cents here on your blog.

Basically, I think what the LPGA is doing is what NYU Law Professor (formerly of Yale University) Kenji Yoshino would call COVERING. They, the LPGA and their sponsors (since that's who seems to be driving the economics of the sport) are demanding that non-English speakers assimilate into U.S. norms, particularly those involving language.

[For more on Yoshino's book, check out COVERING: THE HIDDEN ASSAULT ON OUR CIVIL RIGHTS]

I looked at the link by Ryan Ballengee, and it's interesting that he notes Annika Sorenstam is someone "Americans" can get behind because we identify with her...because she speaks English fluently.


I think what Ballengee and others don't want to acknowledge, either because they have hidden this within their subconscious or they don't want to talk about it openly/directly, is that for too many people, the word "American" comes with a picture and that picture is someone who is white and not Asian.

Michelle Wie, an American gal if I ever saw her, will always be a hyphenated American--potentially exacerbated by her Hawaiian locale since there are still people who assume the residents of our 50th state speak a foreign language and that you need to change currency when you land in Honolulu.

There is a particularly racist history against Asians in America, albeit one that the average American doesn't know because Asian American history is absent (or negligent) in high school courses and most college ones as well (or marginalized into separate spheres rather than discussed as part of the larger fabric of American history).

The idea of Asians a a yellow peril, a foreign horde, a mass of non-English, non-American, almost sub-human group has proliferated over the last century and a half.

What does this have to do with the LPGA? I'd say subliminally (or not so subliminally) a lot. The imposition of English as the lingua franca of the U.S. is ridiculous. Any athlete in the world knows that to garner the most endorsement deals, you need to speak English. Any person in the U.S. knows that it is to his/her best interest to try to speak conversational English. The reasons people do not become fluent in English after moving here are myriad and multiple and often have to do with time/resources/energy, but also there is a real way in which trying to learn a new language at a certain age feels like a Sisphysian task.

Neither of my grandparents were fluent in English, and in the case of my grandfather, a man who spoke 10 different dialects of Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Fukinese, Shanghaiese adn the list goes on and on) it wasn't because he was lazy or stupid or hated America. It was because when you are forced to immigrate at the age of 50 to a country whose language bears zero resemblance to all the other languages you speak and you are treated like a second-class (or third class) citizen and you have to make a living in this new foreign soil, you don't really have time to enroll in English language classes.

I know the story of my grandparents is different than these LPGA players, but I think the question everyone should ask is why. Why now? Why target the Korean players since it seems a special meeting was held with these players specifically rather than all the players who come from nations where English isn't the native tongue. Why does it make people (read Americans) uncomfortable to hear someone speaking a different language, especially an Asian person speaking an Asian language? What are the ways in which white privilege is operating in full force in the world of the LPGA (and professional golf in general) and the ways in which we want Asian money but not to be reminded that Asian people have their own language and culture.

Again, what the LPGA is enforcing is an assimilationist demand--a covering demand, on non-native English speaking players and particularly Korean players. Quite frankly, all I really care about when watching players on the LPGA is whether or not the can swing their clubs and make smart shots on the tee, fairway, and greens. If there's a translator helping them answer qeustions in the tent or with the newscasters, so be it.

And Ballengee is going to soon be wrong--because the language of business used to be English but increasingly with China's dominance it's mandarin, which means everyone better bust out their calligraphy brushes and hone their aural skills in distinguishing tones because we are going to rely increasingly on Asian nations for money and business and what is going to happen when China requires US to learn Mandarin/Chinese????

The Constructivist said...

Jennifer, thanks for the long comment--really a blog post of its own! As I've been running around from class to meeting to office hour and back almost non-stop today and have to finish up a few things before I can go home, I don't have time now for a detailed response. I've been listening to Ryan's podcasts for a while now, and he's acknowledged the force of racism in the U.S., so I read his response in that context. More soon!

Anonymous said...

Have you noticed that only media types, academic theorists, and the occassional blood sucking lawyer type are getting all bent out of shape over this ?

This meeting took place last week at the Safeway. The media was not in the room - yet they believe they are the experts on anything and everything that goes on with the situation.

The players get it. They understand that their tour is not rolling in cash like the PGA Tour, so they have to put out extra effort to build their fan base.

This is not some academic theory class - this is reality. They are not being asked to perform Shakespeare - just be able to carry on a simple conversation with the sponsors and media.

Enough of this "ugly American" nonsense - and attempting to impose 18th century mindsets on the majority of Americans is pure drivel.

A little cynicism can be a good thing - wallowing in it and thinking that it is "cool" is what academics who can't deal with the real world do.

Jennifer said...

Despite Courtgolf's clearly dismissive tone towards people working in the media and academics (which I take to be a specific jibe at the comment I left above) I agree with a few things that s/he has written:

1) I don't think the LPGA is being asked to perform Shakespeare. I think they'd be AWFUL at performing Hamlet or King Lear.

2) The LPGA is at a distinct cash disadvantage, which is true for all women in professional sports, perhaps with the exception of women's figure skating. I suppose I should say that women athletes are at a disadvantage in terms of endorsement money in any sport that is open to men as well as women. This means less money for women's soccer, basketball, volleyball, and golf.

3) Imposing 18th century mindsets on Americans would, indeed, be anachronistic.

4) A little cynicism is not a bad thing

Now, here are the things I part ways with in terms of Courtgolf

1) As tempting as it would be to stoop to your level of rhetoric, ie: being deliberately provocative and devolving into namecalling, I am going to resist because I think, at heart you and not an evil (wo)man--perhaps a little bitter and defensive, at least by your tone, but I am sure that you have many people in your life who love and respect you and that your words are intended to be provocative even if they seem to be polemical for the sake of being argumentative rather than engage in respectful dialogue/discourse.

2) I don't teach fictional characters at my university. Which means, that the students in my "academic theory classes" are all real. I live in a reality--it may not share much in common with your reality, but I would argue that it is no less "real" so let me ask, what point, exactly, are you trying to make? Since I exist on the same existential plane as any other human being on this planet, are you trying to imply, Courtgolf, that my beliefs as outlined in my comment are somehow inapplicable to the situation of the LPGA mandating English on its players? That would have been a much clearer and explicable statement than your false assertion that I somehow don't live in the same reality as you/others/LPGA do and that I somehow want golfers to perform Shaksespeare (again, VERY BAD IDEA, just like I do not want the actors at my local rep to be on the LPGA/PGA tour).

2) Racism is not an 18th century concept-it is alive and well. We can see it in this election where die hard Democrats are digging in their heels and coming up with all sorts of bizarre excuses for not liking Obama and not wanting to vote for him. What I believe they cannot acknowledge is their internalized racist beliefs--the fact that the leap they would have to make to accept someone who looks like Barack Obama to be President of the United States is too much--runs counter to their uninterrogated concept of who qualifies as a leader.

Similarly, when we think of who counts as "American" it is often a white American. Regularly I have people ask me how many "American" students are in my class. What they are asking is how many white students I teach. Somehow they have internalized a belief that (a) an Asian American professor who teaches Asian Ameircan studies has only or mostly Asian American students in her classroom (b) My Asian American, Latino, American Indian, and African American students are not "American."

Kenji Yoshino is not an egghead academic. His work, COVERING, is published by Random House and is a very readable book. And his ideas are profound and important for everyone who cares about civil rights and human rights. And understanding the imposition of language demands as an assimilation demand, a covering demand, can help parse out this situation to reveal the underlying politics and assumptions behind the LPGA asking non-English speaking players and the perception that they are targeting Korean players as being beyond a rhetoric of "racism" and into the minutiae of race in American. Understanding WHY English is so important to LPGA/Sponsors and what MESSAGE this sends to players, to golfers, to people around the world is certainly a worthy enterprise--that's the enterprise that people, like me who teach in universities and are asked to think carefully about such issues do.

And I was specifically asked by Constructivst to weigh in, and so I did.

3) Thank you for thinking that I'm cool Courtgolf! Most professors are the biggest geeks in the world. I mean, can you think of a geekier thing to do then to spend 6-7 years of your life getting a PhD and writing a dissertation and then for the lucky few who land a tenure track job, to spend your life focused on a specific topic--that's nerd city. But if you think I'm one hip and cool gal, I appreciate that!

4) I think I already tackled the "real world" comment--I do wonder why you think I live on a separate plane of reality or planet.

And I do have a question for YOU Coutgolf (or perhaps any other commenter who shares her/his point of view): Why are you so threatened by the idea that someone (like me or the Constructivst or others who have weighed in) would disagree with this ruling? We disagree with things all the time--I don't just mean me and you (after all, I don't even know you, although I think for a while you were posting comments to my blog until I asked you to rephrase a particularly ad hominem attack on myself and to take off your email address--I wondered what had happened to you? I really did want you to repost, only NOT being so nasty to me--but really, I didn't want you to leave your personal email up on my blog--best not to invite others to write in to you unannounced).

Sorry for the digression!

I guess what I wonder about, based on the "tone" of your comment as well as the ones you had left before on my blog, what exactly is bothering you so much when people critique golf? It doesn't mean I don't love watching the LPGA and PGA and following Tiger and playing myself. But it does mean that I think it isn't perfect and my professional life as a critic does make me want to investigate the why behind the cultural things that go on in the world, which includes the world of golf. Why does this threaten/bother/anger you so much? Or perhaps I am misreading you, but I think it's hard not to think that you are simply an angry young (wo)man, of course please correct me if I'm wrong! I'll prepare myself for your pleasantries.

spyder said...

Sometimes i don't know whether to rage or cry.

I have a dear academic friend, Robert Forte, who plays a great deal of golf with his good buddy Michael Murphy. They play for many reasons (none of them economic), but preeminent among them is ritual. Bob, who has studied the ancient histories of the sport, researching and playing on courses, and old moors, all over Scotland, believes that the game was first played in public to hide deeper religious activities from the conquering English warlords. I don't know about all that, but playing golf with Bob is more fun than it ever should be, with lessons at every tee and every hole. It most certainly is not about promoting the game for sponsorship endorsements and advertising dollars.

More than a decade ago, i delivered a paper at a Multicultural Education conference in CA titled: Language Diversity Is As Important As Species Diversity for the Planet (yes, i too am one of those academic types, though retired). Among the data i presented were some statistics about remaining speakers of first languages in California. In 1995, there were only 37 elderly speakers of 9 tribal languages that were in immediate danger of becoming extinct. Today the elders are all gone, and only one of those languages was marginally preserved in some audio recordings made in the field. How much critical habitat information was lost we will never know; keeping in mind that some of these languages had been used for a few thousand years and were filled with relationships for accessing and using necessary resources.

Now what do these two paragraphs have to do with one another. In 2008, there will be a general election in which citizens of the United States will be asked to choose between two very different constituencies. One party has placed its claim (one need only listen to and/or read its TV, radio, books, newspapers, and blogs to verify this) on a view that the US is a nation to be based on: patriarchic plutocracy, white privilege and supremacy, xenophobic Christianity, English only human only, military prowess and security state investment, and power of wealth to establish justice. The other party is only slightly different, staking its claims on: plutocracy, privilege of wealth as access to governance and justice, military might and strength, support for like-minded nation states, and so forth. What separates this other party is that it is also dedicated to the proposition that all humans are created equal, that multiculturalism is an essential component of US life and culture, that a person’s race and original cultural heritage does not ascribe values of hierarchy and privilege, and that the planet is dangerously fragile and worthy of proper care and stewardship. It appears to me that the LPGA has made a conscious decision to align themselves with one party over the other. And in this sick, infected society, appearances are all that matter.