The LPGA announced today that starting in 2009 it would be requiring the players on its tour to be able to speak English. LPGA State Farm Tournament Director Kate Peters justifies this discrimination against non-English speakers by noting, “This is an American tour. It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience.”
This decision bring up several interesting issues. First of all, the sports economics literature is full of papers testing for discrimination on the part of consumers. A classic 2001 paper by Kanazawa and Funk about the NBA found that black players were paid less than comparable white players but that teams with white players, even bench warmers, drew better Neilsen Ratings. As a back of the envelope calculation, the higher ratings could explain the higher salaries for white players. So, can one ethically justify employer discrimination that is done to accomodate customer discrimination? The U.S. Supreme Court generally says no, but what about this case? Obviously, the main difference is that English can be learned while skin color cannot, and the LPGA has stated that it intends to help those needing special tutoring to attain English proficiency.
Second, it is interesting that this is in issue in the LPGA but not other major sports leagues. Can you imagine the NBA banning Yao Ming until he passes an English proficiency test or Man. U. benching Cristiano Ronaldo until his fluency increased? (Of course, most Brits speak barely understandable English, but that’s another story.) Apparently the NBA thinks its fans rather like Yao Ming’s 22.0 points per game despite his somewhat limited English language abilities. Are LPGA fans less interested in watching the world’s best female golfers (16 out of the top 20 of whom are non-native English speakers), and more interested in hearing their post-round press conferences?