Concerned about its appeal to sponsors, the women’s professional golf tour, which in recent years has been dominated by foreign-born players, has warned its members that they must become conversant in English by 2009 or face suspension.
“We live in a sports-entertainment environment,” said Libba Galloway, the deputy commissioner of the tour, the Ladies Professional Golf Association. “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.”
The L.P.G.A. and the other professional golf tours, unlike professional team sports, are dependent on their relationships with corporate sponsors for their financial survival.
Although Galloway insisted that “the vast majority” of the 120 international players on the L.P.G.A. circuit already spoke enough English to get by, she declined to say how many did not. There are 26 countries represented on the L.P.G.A. Tour. South Korea, with 45 golfers, has the largest contingent.
The L.P.G.A.’s new language policy — believed to be the only such policy in a major sport — was first reported by Golfweek magazine on its Web site Monday. According to Golfweek, the L.P.G.A. held a meeting with the tour’s South Korean players last week before the Safeway Classic, at which the L.P.G.A. commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, outlined the policy. Golfweek reported that many in attendance misunderstood the penalty, believing they would lose their tour cards if they did not meet the language requirement.
Even so, the magazine reported, many South Korean players interviewed supported the policy, including the Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak. “We agree we should speak some English,” said Pak, who added that she thought fines seemed a fairer penalty than suspensions. “We play so good over all. When you win, you should give your speech in English.”
She added: “Mostly what comes out is nerves. Totally different language in front of camera. You’re excited and not thinking in English.”
Major League Baseball, which has a high percentage of foreign-born athletes, said it had not seen the need to establish a language guideline. Pat Courtney, a spokesman for M.L.B., said baseball had not considered such a policy because it wanted its players to be comfortable in interviews and wanted to respect their cultures.
“Given the diverse nature of our sport, we don’t require that players speak English,” he said. “It’s all about a comfort level.”
The National Hockey League, which is based in Canada where English and French are the official languages, also places no such requirements on its players, although several clubs provide players with tutors if they express a desire to learn English.
The National Basketball Association, which had 76 international players from 31 countries and territories last season, follows a similar approach to the N.H.L.
“This is not something we have contemplated,” said Maureen Coyle, the N.B.A.’s vice president for basketball communications.
The only N.B.A. players in recent years to have used an interpreter are China’s Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian. Yao, who began playing in the N.B.A. with the Houston Rockets in 2002, no longer needs an interpreter.
In fairness, comparisons between the L.P.G.A., an independent organization not affiliated with the PGA Tour, and other sports bodies are imprecise. The L.P.G.A., much like the PGA Tour, is a group of individual players from diverse backgrounds whose success as an organization depends on its ability to attract sponsorships from companies looking to use the tour for corporate entertainment and advertisement.
Rarely are N.B.A. players called upon to play one-on-one with a corporate executive whose decision to write a sponsorship check is predicated on whether one had a good time shooting free throws with Kobe Bryant.
There is much more to it, but a large part of the economic success of a golf organization is predicated on whether a corporate entity decides to underwrite a tournament and whether a television network decides to broadcast it. All of those decisions are based on the tour’s being able to market its athletes.
The L.P.G.A. started a program in 2006 to help international players learn English and transition into American culture.
“It’s been very successful thus far,” Galloway said.
There are risks to the path on which the L.P.G.A. is about to embark. Legal experts said the new policy could result in legal action. Arthur S. Leonard, a professor of law at New York Law School and an expert on employment issues, said that in some states a potential claim of national origin discrimination could be made if the players were able to show that the rule singled out players of a particular origin.
He added that the L.P.G.A. “would be subject to the New York state human rights law with respect to any tournaments taking place in New York, and it is possible that the public accommodations provisions of that law could apply to this situation.”
Galloway said the policy had been thoroughly vetted by the tour’s lawyers and that it did not single out any one group.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “This applies to all of our membership.”
In South Korea, Yonhap, a news agency, disagreed, saying on its Web site that the decision “raises suspicions that it is targeting Korean players.”
Kwak Sang Il, an official for the Korea Ladies Professional Golf Association, said that the organization’s board of directors expected to meet to discuss the L.P.G.A.’s requirement, although the group had no comment.
Kwak said he was concerned about the impact the requirement would have on Korean players, but he said that to a degree, he could see the motivation behind the L.P.G.A.’s decision.
“When a player wins the championship, you want to expose her to the media, but if she can’t speak English well, it limits the publicity efforts of the organizers,” he said.
“We have a similar problem when a foreign player wins a title in a tournament held in Korea and the player can’t speak Korean at all," he said.
Leonard’s analysis of the L.P.G.A. policy as it related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, seemed to concur, up to a point.
“This is not really an English-only requirement,” he said, noting that players would not be required to speak only English. He added, “If the L.P.G.A. can show that English proficiency is a relevant qualification to competing in a professional golf tournament in the U.S., they would have a defense to any claim that they are discriminating unlawfully.”