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.]