Remember Andrei Kirilenko's early years with the Utah Jazz? A Russian native, Kirilenko struggled with the English language. When he was interviewed, he often appeared with his wife, Masha, who had a far better command of the language. But fans gave Kirilenko the benefit of the doubt because he gave his all on the basketball court.
Now, Kirilenko handles his own interviews and even appears in commercials speaking English. It didn't take an edict from the National Basketball League for the affable Kirilenko to learn English.
That's not the case on the LPGA Tour. Next year, the tour will enforce a policy that requires members to speak English or risk suspension of their playing privileges. English proficiency is needed, the tour maintains, so players can better attend to their professional responsibilities such as conversing with partners in pro-am tournaments and speaking to the news media. The policy is also aimed at ensuring sponsors feel they receive the highest benefit for their dollar.
Professional sports rosters have an increasingly international flair. For instance, there are 121 international players from 26 countries on the LPGA Tour, 45 of whom are from South Korea. Among the South Korean players, four are ranked among the top 12 female golfers worldwide. Some South Korean players believe the English requirement is targeted at them.
The policy could conceivably be challenged in court on the grounds that it discriminates on the basis of national origin. While employers can require that workers speak English for reasons of safety or efficiency, this rule appears to plow new ground. "Is the language a player speaks fundamental to the competition?" queries Steven Jacob, an employment attorney quoted on the American Bar Association's Web site, www.abajournal.com.
It's one thing for international players' agents to encourage them to learn English because it can lead to more lucrative business deals. But for a professional sports organization to bar participation because of a lack of English mastery smacks of the ugly American. That reflects poorly on all of us.