Friday, September 05, 2008

Speak English or be suspended?

Several golf and sporting-news sources have reported over the last few weeks on what is being called a first-of-its-kind language policy for professional athletes in the U.S.: “Speak English or be suspended.”

The new policy, if it remains in force, would require that all of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA)’s 121 international players from 26 countries, including 45 players from South Korea, would have to pass an oral English proficiency examination after 2 years of membership. Explaining the LPGA’s reasons for initiating the rule—first announced by commissioner Carolyn Bivens before the Safeway Classic in mid-August to an audience of only South Korean players—deputy commissioner Libba Galloway explained,

We live in a sports-entertainment environment. 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. (quote from the International Herald Tribute article linked above)

Such policies have not been considered by other pro sports organizations in the United States, the IHT article noted—this includes the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League (based in Canada), each of which has significant numbers of international players. And, after growing opposition from players and civil rights organizations, it appears that the LPGA has started to rethink this rule: Golfweek magazine, which first broke the story about the rule, reported that the organization has proposed a revised approach to its so-called “effective communication policy”, stating, “there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities for every tour player.”

This issue appears far from resolved, and it raises more questions than can probably be addressed. What moved me to write about it here was not only the probably discriminatory nature of the rule itself in linking performance in sport with oral linguistic expression (“an absolute slap in the face of women, minorities, immigrants,” said California State Senator Leland Lee), nor only the draconian idea of imposing mandatory English testing on its players as a way to enforce the policy, but also the money-making logic of professional sports that has even many international golfers nodding their heads, saying the English testing idea makes sense.

The imperative to inject broadcast sports with sound bites and interviews with media outlets and corporate sponsors before, after, and, increasingly, during sports events is something that gets my ire as a spectator of baseball (mid-inning interviews with the manager? When did these start?), football, and even the recent Summer Olympics (who ever thought of interviewing a sprinter 20 seconds after the race?). What it seems to mean is that professional athleticism is growingly contingent on a form of self-marketing, or even self-packaging, that takes place largely through language. And the idea that English should form the currency by which sports and other ostensibly non-linguistic activities are commodified, seems alarming.

Or…am I just off base here?

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