If you are one of the 121 international players from 26 countries — and one of the 45 South Koreans in particular — on the LPGA, you might be upset by the tour’s mandate that you learn to speak passable English or face a possible suspension. You might call it a civil rights violation. You could say, “I’m going back to Asia or Europe, where I can shout gangsta raps in my native tongue if I want to.”
I can empathize with you. After the Civil War, most states in the Deep South imposed arbitrary literacy tests to keep my illiterate African-American forbearers from voting. My black Sunday school teachers taught me to speak proper English — to not say dis and dat or use other forms of Ebonics — so that I could communicate in mainstream society. Yes, I know how it feels to look different and sound different. I know that in the United States there are hundreds of regional accents, few of which make a person sound like what you hear on the evening news.
But if you want to read headlines on the six o’clock news, you have to learn to speak the way anchors do. If you want to succeed in corporate America, you may have to abandon part of your cultural identity. No one will tell you this, but if you audition for a television producer job with a thick accent, or say “axe” instead of “ask” in a job interview, you probably won’t get the gig. Whether or not they’ve been codified into an official policy, the barriers to success in this country go beyond the simple question of whether or not you can do the job.
Is it fair? No, but neither is life. It’s not about fair. The influx of Koreans to women’s golf over the last decade dictates that it’s time to make English the lingua franca of the sport. It’s purely a business decision. “This is an American tour,” said Kate Peters, executive director of the LPGA State Farm Classic. “It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience.” Who can blame Peters or the Tour for taking this position in one of the toughest economies of the last 25 years. A company shelling out millions of dollars to sponsor a golf tournament should expect that its clients be able to talk to the players. Why shouldn’t any private company be able to determine language rules that will help it make money?
Many writers and bloggers are enjoying the opportunity to throw self-righteous grenades at the LPGA, but that’s because they don’t understand that being a touring pro means more than putting a ball in a hole. Public relations, sponsor seduction and fan interaction are all part of the job.
Lamar Alexander, a Republican Senator from Tennessee, has been the most vocal proponent of an amendment that would make English mandatory in the workplace. “This is America, and in America we speak English,” said Sen. Alexander, a former Secretary of Education. “Since 1906, no immigrant has been able to become an American citizen without learning English.”
Why shouldn’t the LPGA tour adhere to this inalienable right to mutual progress? Ultimately, if the LPGA didn’t seek to set a standard for English literacy it would be furthering the alienation and isolation that minority and immigrant groups have historically felt in the United States.
When I finish writing this essay, I will hail a cab on St. Nicholas Ave. in Upper Manhattan. Chances are, my driver will speak almost anything but English. He will only recognize the address that I give him. We won’t talk about our kids or the weather. We won’t talk about why we can’t talk to each other. I’ll pay him and wave goodbye as I leave his car. I’ll probably never see him again.
The stakes are too high for the LPGA to continue these types of casual lost-in-translation encounters. For its business to thrive in a tough economy in a sport that struggles even during the best of times, it needs more. It needs to make a statement, loud and clear.
Life isn’t fair.