Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Paging Carolyn Bivens

Thanks to Geoff Shackelford and Ryan Ballengee for calling my attention to the Carolyn Bivens interview with Beth Ann Baldry and the Ron Sirak story that contains quotes from the Commissioner on the new and as yet unformed English proficiency requirement for LPGA membership. I thought I was done writing about this when I closed out my little trilogy on the subject. But I should have known better. A blog named after a Douglas Adams novel is probably doomed to stretch the meaning of the word "trilogy." (Guess I've got another post on this coming, then.)

You see, Bivens made this personal with this western New York blogger when her office leaked that the straw that broke the camel's back came (according to Sirak) "when Eun-Hee Ji won the Wegmans LPGA in June and was unable to deliver the victory speech in English." I'm assuming we'll soon be hearing angry denials from both Wegmans and the tournament organizers--who have secured professors and students from the University of Rochester's Simon School as translators, footed the bill for tournament webcasts and made a huge deal about their Asian viewership, and generally welcomed international players with open arms--that they had anything to do with the policy. Ji herself is taking one for the team, saying to the Korean media, "At the time, I spoke Korean in the interview. I experienced pricks of conscience as I felt if the latest decision targets me. I'll pay more attention to improving my English." But why should the top player in the LPGA's Class of 2007 feel guilty?

With apologies to Adams fans everywhere, I offer the following Hitchhiker's Guide to the LPGA's defense of its language policy.

1. It's good for the tour's bottom line.

The Commissioner mentions that "The more the audience knows about the business model of the LPGA, the more likely they are to be in agreement." Really? Let's review the reasoning. Futures Tour communications guru Lisa Mickey breaks it down for us:

Sponsors and pro-am participants pay money for personal encounters with professionals on the golf course. For sponsors, golf tournaments are an advertising tool and a corporate entertainment tool. The LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship, for example, is a well-established way for food and grocery vendors to network against the backdrop of a professional golf tournament alongside top women golf pros.

Plenty of corporate sponsors align themselves with the NBA and NFL, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will go one-on-one with Kobe or run downfield for a bomb from Brett Favre. Golf is unique and personal and when people are spending money in this environment, they do it for the chance to spend five or so hours on a golf course with a real playing professional. At the end of the day, if that pro hasn’t been able to utter a single “Nice shot,” then the odds are pretty high that the amateur spending substantial dollars won’t be back next year. Too much of that hurts the tournament. Enough of that hurts the tour.

The LPGA certainly has embraced its global membership and its global membership has made it a much more interesting tour, but while professional golf may be fun and games to the public, it is still, at the end of the day, a business. And, as mentioned before, this business depends solely on the personal satisfaction of check writers based on their experiences with the pros. If the pros can’t communicate, the experience is not a valid return on investment for those individuals sponsoring events and playing in pro-ams. Pro-ams and sponsorships secure tournament purses. Without the purses, there are no tournaments. And without tournaments, there are no tours.

Sounds good. Never mind that the reason some pros may not utter a single "nice shot" in an entire pro-am round may have more to do with the quality of their playing partners' games than their own language abilities. Never mind that a certain number of pro-am participants may actually know other languages than English. Never mind that there are no threats of suspensions for the English-speaking pros who may happen to be introverted, misanthropic, or just having a bad day. Consider the following major problems with Mickey's logic:

a) "this business depends solely on the personal satisfaction of check writers based on their experiences with the pros": if true, this is an alarming admission, but it's most likely an overstatement. That "solely" there implies that the LPGA isn't making a significant amount of money from its Korean and Japanese TV deals, which is either untrue or suggests that the LPGA isn't counting on any decent American TV deal to sweeten their pot from check writers who base their decisions on projected ratings and advertising revenues, not on their "personal satisfaction" with pros.

But even if Mickey meant "primarily," there are still serious problems with her logic. Consider the LPGA's range of possible responses to sponsors who have problems with the language abilities of a certain small percentage of pros on tour.

i) "We have excellent English instruction programs in place and our players are embracing them. We guarantee this problem will go away. In the meantime, we'll ask the player(s) in question to offer you their personal apologies."
ii) "We're teaming up with with our tournament organizers to fund a team of interpreters from neighboring colleges and universities for every event on tour so that this kind of isolated incident remains one."
iii) "We're sorry your employees and clients have such a problem with some of our international players. Perhaps we can recommend some diversity management training that we've benefitted from ourselves."
iv) "We're sorry you no longer wish to sponsor this tournament. We're sure there will be no negative local, regional, national, or international backlash against your brand if we had to answer questions from the media about why you've withdrawn your sponsorship."

Sure, sticking to your guns and defending all your players might cause you to lose a sponsorship or 2. But you don't need a Ph.D. to recognize that you can offset those losses with new tournaments in places with potential sponsors, pro-am participants, and fans who would be excited to be associated with a young, hot, and global professional golf tour. There must be some companies that want to get their brands better known in Asia and Latin America somewhere in the United States. At the very least, you might consult the latest census for concentrations of Latin American and Asian immigrant and ethnic American populations. You know, places where non-U.S.-based multinationals and transnationals might want to expand their markets? And where tournament organizers may see increased ticket sales?

b) "If the pros can’t communicate, the experience is not a valid return on investment for those individuals sponsoring events and playing in pro-ams": If this is true of events in predominantly English-speaking areas of the United States, then it must be equally true of events in Quebec, Mexico, France, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and China. So when will we see monolingual American players being asked--no, wait, required--to sacrifice their time and effort for the tour's bottom line? As I wrote earlier, "Being able to get by in 2 or more languages is the norm the world over. In reality, it's the monolingual English speakers who need the carrot and stick to venture outside our little world. If we're not willing to legislate it for ourselves, why not leave learning English to economic forces and individual choices like we do with almost everything else?"

But why wouldn't the LPGA be willing to require a minimal level of proficiency in at least one non-English language? Are they perhaps worried that such a policy might be controversial with the public, unpopular with the players, difficult to enact or enforce, risk defections to and fewer Q-School applications from those on other tours, and even open up a competitive advantage for others who might take the opportunity to challenge their monopoly?

Why would they be? After all...

2. It's good for the players.

Mickey dangles the carrot:

I doubt that anyone would argue that it is to the [dis]advantage of any player to learn the language of the land where she intends to play. When New Yorker Jean Bartholomew decided to play golf on the Japan LPGA (JLPGA) before she was a U.S.-based LPGA member, she knew part of the equation to her success--and survival--was learning to speak Japanese. Jean learned Japanese and can still converse in the language. The same has been true of such LPGA players as Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, France’s Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, Paraguay’s Julieta Granada and South Korea’s Jeong Jang. Each learned English and has been able to communicate effectively as LPGA members.... The goal is for every player on the LPGA to easily converse with pro-am partners and tournament sponsors, to effectively communicate basic thoughts about their rounds to media, and to have the ability to express their thoughts and thanks during tournament award ceremonies. What, I ask, is unfair about that?

Bivens wields the stick:

"If these players don't take this step [and learn English], their ability to earn a living is reduced. They will be cut out of corporate and endorsement opportunities. I can't imagine that someone who has thought this through does not realize that in opposing this measure they are penalizing the very people they are trying to help."

Never mind that Mickey has never read Multilingual America, much less figured out that the U.S. has no official language. Or that there's nothing unfair about the goal as she describes it--so long as it really applies to all players in any LPGA event. Or that there's a difference between opposing the goal and opposing the penalty. Or that Bivens's hiking the penalty for non-compliance does more to reduce international players' ability to earn their living on the LPGA than any lack of corporate or sponsorship opportunities (the substantial ones of which so far seem to be heading mostly to players named Wie, Gulbis, and Creamer, anyway--and took even Annika many years to earn).

No, the basic problem is with forcing players to do what's good for them. It was Annika and Lorena who set the bar on fitness, not Carolyn Bivens. And it should be Se Ri Pak who sets the bar for the South Koreans who followed her to the LPGA when it comes to English. If you don't trust Se Ri, why not get out of the business of evaluating English proficiency by making LPGA and Futures Tour Q-Schools open only to graduates of U.S. colleges and universities? Isn't a college education good for everyone? And doesn't the U.S. have the best higher education system in the world?

Don't like this solution? Ah, enjoy wading through the USCIS website to figure out whether golfers should be held to the same standards as health professionals or physical therapists.

First drug testing, now language testing. What's next? Don't get me wrong: I'm in favor of drug testing done right. Not only can it help prevent harm to players, but it also helps level the playing field and head off a bodily enhancement arms race (so to speak). The only harm to players for not being multilingual is to their pocketbooks, not their bodies, while the only competitive disadvantage that could possibly come from not knowing English depends on it being the only language golf balls understand.

But don't mind me. After all...

3. People who don't like the policy are overreacting out of ignorance or political bias.

Wait a second: who was it who decided to tell only the Korean players on tour about a policy that hadn't then even been fully formulated--and won't be until December? Who was it who's been offering weak justifications for it--and then mostly through back channels?

As for suggestions from the LPGA office that opinions have been split along Red State/Blue State lines and that the tour will become a political football for Fox News and the New York Times, that dog just won't hunt: language politics cuts across party lines and divides parties. But hey, way to lend credence to your critics' worst fears: not only that you can't figure out how to market the LPGA's international talent to all Americans (taking advantage of "land of opportunity," "model minority," "diversity," and "globalization" scripts, not to mention the higher percentage of devout Christians among the Korean contingent), but more important that you really are reaching out to the English-only movement, that you really do see nativists as a priority demographic to target, and that you're desperate enough to hope this half-baked scheme will help your TV contract negotiations.

The irony in all this is that I still believe the LPGA will tweak its policy by December to address the widespread concerns over its implementation and penalties, so I'm still reserving judgment on its final form. The tragedy is that they've shown themselves more liable to direct friendly fire toward the messenger than to actually engage in that dialogue they say they want.

[Update 1 (3:33 pm): Here's LPGA.com's announcement from Commissioner Bivens and Geoff Shackelford's response to an accompanying memo from Bivens. What do you all think now?]

[Update 2 (3:39 pm): Here's Ryan Ballengee's response to the Sirak story. Hound Dog's comments can be found on the Inside the LPGA podcast.]

[Update 3 (9/3/08, 1:36 am): Too much work to do to listen to HD's podcast for awhile yet (much less Ryan Ballengee's), but his latest post goes out of the way to be fair to the LPGA brass. Too bad the Bivens offensive hasn't gone over so well with State Farm. Still waiting to hear something from Wegmans.]

[Update 4 (2:24 am): From what I've seen on the web, the Golf Channel coverage has been quite fair to the LPGA. For all the hints of sensationalization, PC, and "liberal media" coming out of the LPGA office, the questions and concerns raised sound pretty sensible to me.]

[Update 5 (9/4/08, 11:52 am): Geoff Shackelford connects the dots.]


Brian Barker said...

I think that LPGA's decision smacks of xenophobia.

At least the Beijing Games appointed an Esperanto translator and CRI broadcast daily, about the Games, in the language.

Confirmation can be seen at http://esperanto.cri.cn

Jennifer said...

Well said/reasoned/articulated Constructivist. And as a Douglas Adams fan, I look forward to the fourth (or fifth or sixth) post in your trilogy.

I agree with the commenter above who wrote that the LPGA's decision "smacks of xenophobia"--but I've already discussed my own two cents (or really at this point fifty cents) in a previous comment thread.

Ryan Ballengee said...

As always, thanks for the link back to Waggle Room. I'm glad you posted this there because it's good and, per usual, well-reasoned.

spyder said...

As you so well crafted, 1) a & b> seem to be at the bottom of this pile of poo. Somewhere they have lost some sponsors with deep pockets and are reacting to that harsh reality. Reactionary and ill-thought policies are part of the early warning signs of collapse of corporate systems.

The Constructivist said...

Reading Bivens's memos in light of Mickey's essay, I'm convinced they believe they're doing this out of the best of intentions. But, frankly, so were many past policies (like, say, the boarding school experience for a generation and more of American Indians) that were done "for the good of" the supposed beneficiaries, according to the "progressive" thought of the times. I cannot believe some who attempt to justify the policy argue that it's better than a quota system!

I still want to know who exactly had a problem with Eun-Hee Ji. Because I'll boycott my favorite supermarket if it turns out to be Wegmans.

spyder said...

Well TC please share the identity if you find out. I will add that to my boycott of all things St Paul and Minneapolis. (Can you say Cointelpro and agent provocateurs, boys and girls?)

The Constructivist said...

I've emailed Wegmans. And I'm in an off-the-record email dialogue with Lisa Mickey. When I find out and can reveal anything, I will.

sag said...

Ad Age article on State Farm
Libba Galloway's response
Jan Stephenson on English scandal