The LPGA’s racist language policy

September 11, 2008

WANT TO play golf on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour? Then you'd better speak English.

This was the message sent by the LPGA on August 25. Players were told by LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens that by the end of 2009, all players who have been on the tour for two years must pass an oral evaluation of their English skills or face a membership suspension.

When asked for the justification of this new policy, Libba Galloway, the deputy commissioner of the tour, had this to say:

For an athlete to be successful today in the sports entertainment world we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this. Being a U.S.-based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English-speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English.

At a mandatory South Korean player meeting on August 20 at the Safeway Classic, the tour informed its largest international contingent of the new policy. Yet as Golfweek reported, "Every Korean player who spoke with Golfweek here was under the impression she would lose her tour card if she failed the test, rather than face suspension."

In South Korea, Yonhap news agency stated on its Web site that the decision "raises suspicions that [the LPGA] is targeting Korean players." I should say so. There are 121 international players from 26 countries on tour, and 45 are South Korean--the largest non-American bloc.

No other major sport has a policy like this. Major League Baseball, which has seen a large influx of non-English speaking players (most notably from the Dominican Republic), said it would never consider a policy such as this. Not to mention the fact that major superstar athletes such as Yao Ming, Ichiro Suzuki and Rafael Nadal have huge English-speaking fan bases, despite the fact that they do not conduct interviews in English.

The LPGA has been using the excuse that it is different because of its reliance on corporate sponsorship, and that "market influences" make the LPGA a different kind of sports organization. However, in the context of anti-immigrant scapegoating and racist English-only legislation being presented in many states in the U.S., this policy should be seen as nothing less than blatant racism and cultural chauvinism.

According to Galloway, however, it is merely business as usual. "Organizations and/or businesses have the right to establish a requirement for skill sets for its employees. Taking time to learn English is as important as that extra 15 minutes on the practice green."

Really? What does speaking English well have to do with playing 54 or 72 holes in an LPGA event? I thought the required skill set for a golfer was accurate putting and a good backswing.

The question is what comes next for a sport that values marketability over substance, and that has always operated with an unspoken subtext that attractiveness (according to the corporate sponsors) is a path to success. What else could be justified by appealing to corporate sponsors--physical requirements, makeup requirements, sexual-orientation requirements?

This is yet another example of how racism, sexism and xenophobia are justified in the interests of the free market, and how the competition over profits forces athletes to become spokesmodels for corporate greed.
Jessica Hansen-Weaver, San Francisco

Further Reading

From the archives