Legal questions surround LPGA's new rule requiring players to speak English

Legal questions surround LPGA’s new rule requiring players to speak English

Libba Galloway, deputy commissioner of the LPGA, at a press conference in April.
Chris Condon/PGA TOUR/Getty Images

Tuesday’s bombshell from LPGA headquarters — the news that in 2009 the tour will require its players to be conversant in English — is already the subject of intense debate in and out of the golf community. But the legality of the LPGA’s decision must also be questioned.

So-called English-only rules in the workplace are an emerging body of law; the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in. One high-profile recent case, still pending, centered on a Connecticut sheet-metal factory that made English compulsory. The attorney for the workers, Steven D. Jacobs, tells “Over the last 10 years, there have been a number of decisions in this area, and the courts have consistently decreed that it is permissible for an employer to mandate English-only for two narrow reasons: safety” — air-traffic control being an obvious example — “and efficiency” — such as telephone customer service.

“And that’s it,” Jacobs continued. “With regards to the LPGA, safety is obviously a non-factor. So the issue becomes, is the language a player speaks fundamental to the competition? I would not want to be the one who has to make that case.”

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

“Language and national origin are inextricable,” says Jacobs. “The LPGA is making English a precondition of access. That’s a classic no-no. I don’t see how this will stand up in court if a player challenges it.”

LPGA Deputy Commissioner Libba Galloway, a graduate of Duke Law and a practicing attorney before joining the LPGA, disagrees: “We are not discouraging players from speaking other languages. They can talk to their caddie in whatever language they choose. They can speak to other players on the driving range in whatever language they choose. If they’re Brazilian and a reporter asks them a question in Portuguese, by all means, answer it in Portuguese. And we’re not demanding that the players be perfectly fluent in English. What we’re saying is that the ability to speak to your pro-am partners and to the media, and for the winner to give their victory speech in English, will be one of our tournament regulations.”

The details of the LPGA’s new policy are still being worked out, but players who fail an oral evaluation will be suspended from tournament play until they can improve their proficiency with the language. Still, the tour brass has left themselves a little wiggle room. The first evaluations are planned for next fall, as the season is winding down. If a player fails, she would have the long off-season to improve her language skills and be re-tested, meaning, theoretically, she might not miss any tournaments.

According to Galloway, the LPGA already offers its members online language courses and has a cross-cultural professional-development program, but in the coming months the tour will ramp up its commitment to spreading English, providing hands-on tutoring and dedicated staffers to help foreign players “assimilate to the specific demands of this job.” One example will be to put players through mock interviews.

“We are not so much focused on the penalties,” says Galloway. “If a player needs help, we want to be there for them. It’s in their interests and the tour’s to make sure they succeed.” Indeed it is. Another employment lawyer contacted for this article said, “Oral evaluations are a nightmare because they are so subjective. If you deny someone the chance to make a living based on an oral eval, you are definitely asking to be sued.”

In Galloway’s estimation, passable English is “vital” for LPGA pros in three areas: dealing with the media, victory speeches and interacting during the five-hour pro-am rounds. The tour provides a small number of on-site translators who can help in the press room and during trophy ceremonies, but the players are on their own during the pro-ams, which are an important part of the LPGA business model, as much of the money generated goes toward the tournament purses. (The LPGA, with a total purse this year of $59 million, has minimal network television presence; the PGA Tour’s $285 million purse comes largely from its rain-making TV deals.) Foursomes often pay into the low five-figures to participate in the pro-ams, and what these avid fans (or schmoozing corporate types) are buying is the chance to interact with their pro.

For years, the dominance of international players has been a hot-button issue in women’s golf. There are 121 international players representing 26 countries on the LPGA tour. Forty-five are South Korean, and this summer they combined to win eight times in an 11-tournament stretch, including two major championships. Last Sunday, Cristie Kerr became just the third American to win an LPGA tournament this year.

Jan Stephenson created a media firestorm in 2003 when she said in a Golf Magazine interview that “Asians are killing our tour,” and a prominent player agent, who has also helped run LPGA tournaments, expressed a similar sentiment to “I am thrilled everyone is going to have to speak English, and I can tell you it’s been advocated behind the scenes for a long time. The LPGA has built its reputation on the players being accessible and fan-friendly, and the girls who don’t speak English are destroying that. If you pay $15,000 to play in a pro-am, you want more than a handshake and a smile on the first and last hole.”

Despite potentially inflammatory statements like these, Galloway does not seem concerned about player reaction. “We are not expecting a backlash of any kind because as we have presented the new regulation to our players they have been overwhelmingly supportive,” she said. The LPGA is just beginning a two-week hiatus on its schedule, so a full accounting of player sentiment will have to wait for next month’s Bell Micro LPGA Classic. But several prominent South Korean players were quoted in Golfweek magazine, which first reported the story, and they were not openly critical.

There is a larger context for the timing of the LPGA’s new initiative. The tour’s demographic shift has accelerated just as the current economic downturn has hit the tour particularly hard; it is likely that four domestic tournaments will disappear from the schedule next year as sponsors drop out. Galloway says the LPGA is simply trying to maximize the marketability of all its players.

“We are a U.S.-based tour, and English is the language used by the vast majority of our sponsors and fans and media,” Galloway said. “It is vital that our players can communicate with these core audiences. This is sports entertainment. How we present ourselves is important.”