September 4, 2008

A Firestorm And A Reversal By LPGA

After an outpouring of negative feedback, including sponsors and legislators, the LPGA modifies penalty provisions in its "effective communications" policy

With no upside for the LPGA, Bivens has recinded the penalty provision.

With no upside for the LPGA, Bivens has recinded the penalty provision.

In this political season, one of the words that enters the vocabulary of the talking heads on television that we don't otherwise hear is "vet," and we aren't talking about horse doctors here. The purpose of a vetting process is to make certain there are no time bombs hidden in the background of a candidate that could explode during the campaign. Clearly, no one at the LPGA vetted the impact that suspending players who could not speak English would have on the various constituencies of the tour.

The decision Friday to rescind the penalty was a shockingly swift admission that the original decision was not thoroughly thought out. In a statement issued under the name of Carolyn Bivens the tour said: "The LPGA has received valuable feedback from a variety of constituents regarding the recently announced penalties attached to our effective communications policy. We have decided to rescind those penalty provisions."

This entire mess, which is embarrassing for the LPGA at best and potentially damaging to its efforts to do business in Asia at worst, could have been avoided if that "valuable feedback" had been sought before the rule was unilaterally imposed on the Korean players at a meeting in Portland in late August. The decision to rescind the penalty was the right one, but is it a large enough eraser to eliminate the memory of the original insult?

Shortly after the tour confirmed that players with two years on tour would be required to be proficient in English by the end of the 2009 I received this ominous warning from an extremely well-connected source involved in tournament management: "Keep an eye on the pressure special-interest groups will put on politicians, the LPGA, sponsors, individual players and TV."

That's exactly what happened. A major LPGA sponsor--State Farm Insurance--publicly distanced itself from the policy, and an Asian-America state senator in California said that the policy might violate state law on discrimination in the workplace and could result in the LPGA being banned from doing business in California.

And if that was what was going on in public you can imagine what was happening behind closed doors. The LPGA is an enormously complex community, one of the most diverse in all of sports. There are 121 international players from 26 nations on the LPGA tour this year, 45 of those are from Korea. Not only are its players multinational but so are its sponsors. It's a delicate coalition.

Since all the Europeans on tour speak English, as well as the handful of players from Latin America, the policy was clearly aimed at the Koreans. And to offend the Korean community was not only wrong, it was bad business. The tour's single biggest revenue stream is Korean TV money. What is to be gained by offending that community?

The ultimate silliness about this entire situation is the small number of players it really affected. A well-placed source within the LPGA hierarchy said there were "perhaps a dozen" Korean players on tour who did not possess the English skills the LPGA desired. A caddie who works for a Korean player placed the number at "about five to seven."

Doesn't it seem as if the tour could have dealt with the problem on an individual basis, as it has been trying to do through its Kolon-LPGA Cross Cultural Program for three years? Among other things, that program provides language training through the Rosetta Stone system.

Does the LPGA have a problem regarding language? No question, although not as great as some think. But I have seen the eyes of reporters glass over when a player speaks for two minutes in Korean and then the translator leans into the microphone and informs us: "She says she's very happy."

Many good stories about compelling personalities have no doubt been lost behind the language barrier, as much because of the sometimes lazy media and poor translations as because of the player. But to require that all players learn to speak English under penalty of suspension was an attempt to impose marketing skills on players who should be judged only by their skills on the golf course.

Another complicating factor is the American track record on language skills. There is a joke Europeans on the LPGA like to tell.

  • What do you call someone who speaks three languages? *

Trilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

Bilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks one language?

American.

As a nation, we tend to think the whole world should speak English

Lost in the entire issue has been one that strikes at the heart of the matter, and at the heart of women's golf--if not at golf itself. The large contingent of Asian players--primarily Korean--on the LPGA would be more easily absorbed if the Americans just played better. The language situation was not so much of an issue last year when Americans were winning.

In 2007, nine different Americans won LPGA events, and for the most part they were the right nine: Morgan Pressel, Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis, Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Prammanasudh, Meaghan Francella, Nicole Castrale and Sherrie Steinhauer.

This year the only Americans to win are Creamer (twice) and Leta Lindley. The majors were won by Lorena Ochoa (Mexico), Yani Tseng (Taiwan), Inbee Park (Korea) and Ji-Yai Shin (Korea). Of those four, only Shin struggles with English. It is no coincidence, I'm guessing, that this policy was imposed during a down year for American players.

We live in an increasingly small world tied together more closely every day by technology. The marketplace is global now no matter what business you are in. And the LPGA has done a brilliant job of transitioning into a world tour, opening up many new revenue streams. Those sources of revenue only remain open if a high level of cultural respect is maintained.

I have often wondered if Tiger Woods would be as revered if he had grown up in his mother's homeland, Thailand, instead of his father's, America. What if Tiger spoke Thai and not English? If he were the same remarkable player would we require him to speak English under penalty of suspension, or would we just marvel at his skills?

"After hearing the concerns, we believe there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities to every Tour player," the LPGA said in its statement, adding that it will have "a revised approach" by the end of the year.

This is a road the LPGA went down at the beginning of the 2006 season when it imposed more restrictive credential language on the media without consulting any of the impacted organizations, resulting in a media boycott at the Fields Open. Whether it is related or not, Fields did not renew its contract with the LPGA when it expired after this year's tournament.

That decision, like the attempt to impose a language requirement on players, failed to look down the road in an attempt to identify and avoid the potential potholes. Clearly, the LPGA did not learn from the credential flap. Perhaps backing off from its ill thought out language policy will be a humiliating experience of enough magnitude that, before making future decisions, "valuable feedback" will be sought before policy is established rather than after it is imposed.

This was a black eye that could have been avoided. The LPGA was hit by a sucker punch--and it was the sucker.