The LPGA Demands that Its Players Speak English

Is everyone else as amazed as I am about the recent decision by the Ladies Professional Golf Association [where 45 of the top 120 players on the circuit are South Korean] to demand that all players be conversant in English?  I am not prone to such comments, but I can’t help but wonder if this could happen anywhere other than the U.S.  I am particularly taken aback by how easily the association feels it can justify such a decision in branding/marketing terms.  Consider the quote from the deputy commissioner (via NY Times):

“We live in a sports-entertainment environment,” said Libba Galloway, the deputy commissioner of the tour, the Ladies Professional Golf Association. “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.”

Nothing personal ladies, just business.  This explanation doesn’t seem too far removed from, “Our fans and sponsors would rather not see South Koreans win so many tournaments, so we will begin every tournament by penalizing South Korean players three strokes.  If they don’t like it, they can go home.  Nobody is forcing them to play.”

This makes me wonder, as a legal/moral issue, where the appropriate line lies between “workplace discrimination” and “responsible business practices given the needs/demands of your patrons.”  Clearly, it is illegal for a restaurant owner to not hire a server because he is worried about losing his racist patrons.  Conversely, Bucknell University is justified in expecting that its faculty members are able to teach in English.

The relevant question seems to be, “Is this characteristic/skill central to performing the job?”  According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,  “A rule requiring that employees speak only English on the job may violate Title VII unless an employer shows that the requirement is necessary for conducting business. If the employer believes such a rule is necessary, employees must be informed when English is required and the consequences for violating the rule.”

The language “if the employer believes such a rule is necessary” is quite striking, and seems to potentially be in conflict with the demand in the previous sentence that employers show that the requirement is necessary for conducting business. As the LPGA case illustrates, decisions regarding  “what is necessary for conducting business” can be quite controversial/potentially racist.

Any thoughts on these matters?  Can someone point me to particularly excellent literature on the subject?

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3 Responses to The LPGA Demands that Its Players Speak English

  1. Ben Saunders says:

    Two things strike me:

    Firstly, it seems wrong of the LPGA to introduce these restrictions on the grounds that English is necessary for success. If that really is the case, then the restriction shouldn’t be necessary – because only those with English will succeed.

    Secondly, I think we have to distinguish sporting success (simply winning tournaments) from wider success, which includes such things as being a celebrity, modelling contracts, and the like (the sort Anna Kournikova enjoyed in tennis).

    It may be true that English is necessary for the wider success, but it isn’t relevant to sporting success. One could no doubt produce a Walzer-inspired defence of complex equality here: saying that trophies should go to those good at golf, but let those who entertain the crowd earn more money.

    Actually, a third thing: is there also a gender issue if male players aren’t required to speak English and women are?

  2. “Firstly, it seems wrong of the LPGA to introduce these restrictions on the grounds that English is necessary for success. If that really is the case, then the restriction shouldn’t be necessary – because only those with English will succeed.”

    It is a bit strange for Deputy Commissioner Gallaway to talk about success in this way, as it commits her to saying that a person can be successful in LPGA events (i.e. win tournaments) without actually being a successful professional golfer. The most charitable interpretation may be that while individual non-english speakers can be successful (they clearly are), the LPGA as an organization/product will be less successful if they are (less fans will come out, there will be fewer sponsors). This strikes me as pretty close to overt racism. It is also unclear whether the LPGA is properly considered the employer in this case, rather than the operators of individual events.

    I would be curious to learn if there were cases where a court decided that an employer was wrong to believe that speaking english was necessary to perform a job – and on what grounds. If there are no such cases (or very few), we have serious reason to question whether Title VII has successfully protected non-english speakers from discrimination. Justice demands something else.

    The PGA tour, which governs men’s events, has no English-language policy.

  3. Nick Ziegler says:

    It seems quite obvious to me that Galloway is simply not speaking the truth. The obvious motive here is that non-English speaking athletes will not have the US celebrity status that attracts lucrative corporate deals and generates a lot of money for the LPGA. The litmus for “success,” then, is not how well the athletes will do for themselves, but rather to what extent the athletes will increase the power and prestige of the institution setting the rules. This should not be surprising, as almost every entity with power will attempt to rationalize similar motives. The LPGA can either have tournament winners who do not speak English and therefore will have difficulty parroting English catch phrases, or they can get them out of the way on dubious grounds so that an English speaker WILL win, and CAN parrot, and the LPGA’s power and prestige (and money) is increased.

    This is a case of an institution attempting to protect its interests at the expense of individuals, whereas discrimination law generally attempts to protect the individual at the expense of what are deemed unjust interests of the institution. What kind of institution is the LPGA: one that creates opportunities for talented athletes to compete against other talented athletes, or is it one that merely uses these competitions as a means to create entertainment empires consisting of other enterprises, even if that means cheapening the competition by weeding out those less likely to explore new marketing avenues?

    This issue is tricker than racism because people are not being excluded based upon nationality or ethnicity per say. However, it does seem safe to say that the LPGA is using English literacy merely as a convenient rationalization for its intent. Surely if there were a terrific English-speaking golfer who merely had no interest in marketing (i.e., “success”), or who didn’t have the charisma to achieve it, the LPGA would be similarly upset, but would probably not be able to find as convenient grounds for taking action.

    I agree that it’s crucial to know whether the LPGA is an employer. As a non-sports fan, I don’t know the relationship athletes have to organizations like this. But I’m sure there’s some kind of contract between player and institution, and it would be interesting to know what exactly the LPGA expects from the player in that contract, and what the player is bound to do for the LPGA. If it is merely to play golf well, this whole things seems quite unfair.

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