Posted by: happyfan08 | January 21, 2009

2008 Awards: Most Controversial Moment

LPGA tells players: learn English or else

There have been some controversial moments over the years involving the LPGA and the way they have reacted to the growing influx of Korean golfers on tour.  But none of those incidents generated the sheer amount of heat that resulted when GolfWeek Magazine reported that the LPGA was instituting a new policy regarding foreign born players.  Those players would have two years from the time they joined the tour to become reasonably conversational in English.  Failure to do this would result in suspension of all playing privileges.

 

The more that was revealed about this policy and how it was arrived at, the more the controversy grew.  First of all, the LPGA had not even spelled out what the policy was; remember that it was a news leak that had caused it to come to light, and the tour resisted spelling it out in more detail despite requests from the media after that.  The LPGA was not able to answer most of the questions about the details of the policy.  Who would be tested (the answer seemed to be, ‘we’ll know who needs to be tested’, which raised all sorts of red flags about arbitrariness)?  When would it occur?  What type of testing would it be?  What would constitute a passing grade?  How long would one be suspended before one could try again?  Would the tour work with those suspended?  Getting answers proved difficult, since Commissioner Carolyn Bivens was away from the office for several weeks during the height of the controversy, saddling her second in command with the sorry task of talking to the press and quelling the growing controversy.

 

When Bivens finally did return, she defiantly stuck with the policy, even as more information leaked out that made it look like a bad idea. At first, she tried to sell this as a global policy that would affect all non-English speaking international players equally, but it was clear to anyone paying attention that the Asian golfers were the targeted players, as the Europeans mostly had learned English in school and were reasonably fluent.  Then it was reported that there had been a mandatory meeting for Korean golfers only at the Safeway Classic, during which this policy was discussed.  If this policy was aimed at all golfers, why were only the Koreans forced to be at that meeting?  And why were Koreans forced to attend who supposedly were fluent enough in English not to be affected by this policy?

 

Bivens tried to spin the idea in several different ways, but each time she only dug the hole deeper.  This was actually a policy meant to help the Asians, she claimed, since they would become more marketable if they could speak English.  Well, more marketable where?  The Koreans were plenty marketable in Korea, where English language skills were not required.  But it was doubtful that most of them would be getting sponsorships from American companies if only they were conversational in English, and it certainly didn’t look like the American media was lining up to give Koreans who could speak English well tons of coverage.  Next she tried the asinine argument that the policy was aimed to help separate the Korean golfers from their fathers, whom Bivens felt had too much influence on the golfers’ careers.  Excuse me?  Like this is anyone’s business but theirs!  She then tried to minimize the impact of the penalty, by claiming that at most maybe a half dozen golfers would be impacted.  But if there were so few golfers causing this problem, why make such a big deal out of it?

 

Ji Young Oh is one of the young Koreans who won for the first time in 2008

Ji Young Oh is one of the young Koreans who won for the first time in 2008

 

 

 

Eventually, sponsors started to openly complain about the policy, and in California, lawmakers were getting ready to make a fuss.  One Asian American rights activist said he was prepared to lead protests at every LPGA event that occurred in the States until the policy was rescinded.  Bivens finally realized enough was enough and dropped the idea of the penalty, while still hoping to encourage the golfers to learn English.

 

So, what exactly happened here?  Why was this such a public relations nightmare for the tour?  What could they have done differently to approach the problem?  Was this in fact a problem that needed a big solution in the first place?

 

No one who objected to this policy thinks that it’s a bad idea to encourage all golfers on tour to learn English.  It’s undeniable that a player becomes more of an asset to the tour, especially in pro-ams, if she can speak the language.  And just in general, knowing multiple languages is a good thing.  The problem was the ham handed way the LPGA went about handling this issue.  Here are a few points to consider.

 

The policy penalized results, not effort

Imagine two Korean golfers.  One tries as hard as she can to learn English, but is not very good at it.  The second doesn’t try at all, but has a natural facility for language.  Chances are, the hard working golfer would end up getting suspended, while the golfer who screwed around would be fine.  How is that fair?  Shouldn’t the golfer who is trying her best be given the benefit of the doubt?

 

In short, why should there even be a penalty just because a golfer cannot easily learn a language that is very different from the one she grew up with?  As long as that golfer is making an effort to learn, shouldn’t the tour be trying its best to support her, rather than punish her?

 

Stop Playing the ‘Blame the Asians’ Game

Why is it always necessary for the tour to blame problems they are having on the Asians (and specifically Koreans, since most of the Asians are from that country)?  The attitude always seems to be, if only we didn’t have so many Asian golfers on tour, we would be so much more successful.  (yeah, like, when there were nothing but white women on tour in the early nineties, the LPGA was so much more successful than it is now…). The Asian golfers are treated like a liability, a problem to be solved, not an asset to be celebrated.  I read an article in a British Magazine about this policy, which said that Jan Stephenson, upon hearing of this new policy idea, claimed she had been ‘vindicated’ for her controversial remarks of 2003 that Asians were killing the tour.  Was this really the message Bivens was trying to send?

 

To be succinct, the Asians are indeed an asset on tour.  Korea and Japan pay the highest rights fees for broadcasting the tour of anywhere in the world.  The LPGA in fact has to pay the American networks to show the tour over here, not the other way around.  They also make a bit of cash from selling LPGA paraphernalia in Asia.  And then there are the Asian corporations who sponsor tour events, such as Ricoh, a Japanese company that sponsors the year’s final Major.  And the Asian tour swing, which gets bigger every year.  And the Lexus Cup, the new Asia-International team event.  The biggest growth area for tour events each year is, without question, coming in Asia.

 

Eun Hee Ji, who won on tour in 2008, is still learning to speak English

Eun Hee Ji, who won on tour in 2008, is still learning to speak English

 

 

 

I have yet to see even a single article that presents this alternate, but thoroughly reasonable, hypothesis: maybe the LPGA is struggling because the (Western) stars who get all the hype and attention are just not that compelling to the American public?  Koreans won nine tournaments on tour in 2008, and Taiwanese 2 events.  But Paula Creamer won four times, Morgan Pressel once, and the extremely hyped international stars Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam won 7 and 3 times respectively.  That’s a total of 15 events.  You would think, with the stars they are trying so hard to promote winning so often, the LPGA would be more popular than ever, right?  So, if it isn’t, maybe the LPGA should reexamine their marketing strategy, and start looking to spread the publicity around to some other golfers that the American fans would find more compelling?  And if the tour is in fact more popular, then what on Earth is all the fuss about the Asians ‘ruining’ the tour?

 

The thing is, we never see that article, because it is easier (and lazier) to assume that the women who look the most different are the ones who are ‘ruining’ the tour.  No one ever claimed that most sportswriters bother to work that hard when it comes to writing articles about the women’s tour.  If those same writers wrote such shoddy articles about the PGA, they probably wouldn’t long have a job.  But that’s tangential to the current discussion…

 

Diversify your organization

It’s astonishing to me that an organization can exist in this day and age that can be so tone deaf when it comes to dealing with multicultural issues.  Most big companies make it a point to consider the way their policies will be perceived by all sorts of audiences, because the last thing most organizations want is controversy.  The LPGA seems unwilling or unable to do this.  One problem, of course, is that there is no one of color (that I’m aware of) who has any real power in the organization.  Even having one or two Asians on the board who could give an opinion about how such ideas will be perceived by people like them might help avoid stupid mistakes like this in the future.  I was encouraged to hear that Il Mi Chung, a respected veteran Korean, will be serving on the LPGA player board next year.  That’s a step in the right direction.

 

But when you do make a mistake like that, the worst thing you can do is keep sticking to your guns as the problems mount.  Admit you made a mistake and move on.  The more Bivens tried to rationalize the policy, the more it sounded like she was trying to make up excuses for a racist exclusionary quota.  Now, that may not have been what she intended at all, but since the reasoning for the idea was so shaky, it sounded like that, anyway.  Appearance is everything in cases like this.

 

I have always thought it was a mistake that the LPGA did not severely punish Jan Stephenson for her comments way back when.  They basically gave her a slap on the wrist and a half hearted criticism.  Imagine for a minute that she had said ‘Jews are ruining the tour’.  Do you think she would have still had playing privileges on tour after that?  Not on your life.  Similarly, when Carol Mann, a Hall of Famer, made a comment that her friends will not watch an event if Koreans are leading, it became pretty clear that she was making a racist statement (if she was just talking about English speaking being necessary, why would she say something like that?  How would she know if those Koreans on the leaderboard speak English or not?  It was clearly a comment that she did not like to see all those foreigners doing well).  The LPGA made no comment about that, either.  It would have been nice to see Bivens try to undo the damage by releasing a statement praising the Koreans and what they have brought to the tour, and she did not do that, either.  After this mess up, she should have been doing as much as possible to rectify the assumption that the tour thinks the Koreans are a problem, not an asset.  My goodness, that’s what they teach you on day one of public relations training: don’t bite the hand that feeds you!

 

Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill; consider alternate solutions

When it was reported that only half a dozen golfers were affected by this policy, it really made the rational observer scratch his head.  Why institute such a draconian punishment if it will affect so few golfers?  How about taking advantage of what the Korean golfers bring to the table that is unique?  If you have a woman who just cannot speak English well enough to participate in a pro-am, why not have her do something else during that time to help the tour?  How about having her do tasks like help the volunteers?  They make rookies on tour do that sort of thing, they could extend this to include all golfers who cannot play pro-ams.  Or, she could tag along with another Korean who speaks English in a pro-am, so she can see how it works.  Or, those golfers could be responsible for interacting with the Korean media that week, helping them with hotels, press releases, and gathering info about the tournament.  Or they could play special pro-ams with the Korean community in that town (some tournaments already do this).  If I could come up with so many options in just a few minutes, there are doubtless many more ways these women could contribute while they are learning the language.

 

The ‘English Only’ policy seems to be a thing of the past, at least for now, but the resentments doubtless are still smoldering under the surface.  It was not lost on fans of the Korean golfers when commentators made such a big deal out of the fact that the next Korean to win an event after this brouhaha, In-Kyung Kim, was lavishly praised because she could speak English well enough to conduct her post event interviews in English.  She is to be applauded for that, of course; but had one of the Koreans who does not speak so well won next, one shudders to think if she would have been insulted for needing a translator to thank those who made that win possible.  It seems like this issue is only dormant for the moment, waiting for another chance to cause problems somewhere down the line.  I sure hope not.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Angela Park slow play Penalty, SBS Open

The LPGA has made a big deal about how, unlike the PGA, theirs is a league that penalizes those who play slowly.  It is true that they are quicker to pull the trigger and give a penalty when someone drags too much on the course.  But it’s also hard to think of too many times when a player in contention for a title has actually suffered a penalty that greatly affected her chances of winning.

 

Unfortunately, one of the few times that did happen, it was a Seoul Sister who bore the brunt of it.  Angela Park was in contention to win at the year’s first event, the SBS Open, when she was given a two shot penalty for slow play.  This pretty much killed her chances of winning.  She made no secret of her annoyance about that ruling afterwards, telling several interviewers that she thought it was unfair to single her out.  And considering all the times someone like Lorena Ochoa has been in a slow final group and not been penalized, she probably has a point.  In fact, she was so discombobulated by the ruling that it took her several months before she recovered and started playing up to snuff again.  Hopefully, she has learned her lesson and this will never happen to her again, but it remains to be seen whether this rule will be applied fairly to all, including the anointed stars of the tour, in the future.

 

Michelle Wie fails to sign her card, is DQed

Leave it to Michelle Wie.  She has come to dominate this ‘controversial moments’ category year after year in a startlingly consistent way.  No one in golf, except perhaps John Daly, has her uncanny knack to generate controversy wherever she goes.  And she did it again in 2008.

 

The event was the State Farm Classic.  Wie was playing the last of her sponsor’s exemptions for the year, and for once, she was playing pretty well.  In fact, after three rounds, she was tied for the lead with Yani Tseng, and looked good to at least get a top five and perhaps even win her first event on tour.  A good finish might have been enough to earn her a membership card for the 2009 season.  For her many fans, it was a dream come true, especially after two years of increasingly horrible golf from the former prodigy.

 

So what does she do?  She forgot to sign her scorecard before she left the scoring tent at the end of her round.  By the time an official hunted her down and told her to sign, it was too late: she had already left the scoring area, and thus had to be disqualified.  Instead of making a top five, she earned not a cent for her time at the tournament.

 

The good news for Wie was that she eventually went to Qualifying School and earned her tour card that way.  But the Missing Signature Heard Round the World would generate yet more miles of ink for the teenage controversy magnet in 2008.

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