In the genteel world of bridge, disputes are usually handled quietly and rarely involve issues of national policy. But in a fight reminiscent of the brouhaha over an anti-Bush statement by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, a team of women who represented the United States at the world bridge championships in Shanghai last month is facing sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition, for a spur-of-the-moment protest.
At issue is a crudely lettered sign, scribbled on the back of a menu, that was held up at an awards dinner and read, "We did not vote for Bush."
By e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of "treason" and "sedition."
"This isn't a free-speech issue," said Jan Martel, president of the United States Bridge Federation, the nonprofit group that selects teams for international tournaments. "There isn't any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them."
Not so, said Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher and columnist. "If the U.S.B.F. wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition," he said by e-mail.
Ms. Martel said the action by the team, which had won the Venice Cup, the women's title, at the Shanghai event, could cost the federation corporate sponsors.
The players have been stunned by the reaction to what they saw as a spontaneous gesture, "a moment of levity," said Gail Greenberg, the team's nonplaying captain and winner of 11 world championships.
"What we were trying to say, not to Americans but to our friends from other countries, was that we understand that they are questioning and critical of what our country is doing these days, and we want you to know that we, too, are critical," Ms. Greenberg said, stressing that she was speaking for herself and not her six teammates.
The controversy has gone global, with the French team offering support for its American counterparts.
"By trying to address these issues in a nonviolent, nonthreatening and lighthearted manner," the French team wrote in by e-mail to the federation's board and others, "you were doing only what women of the world have always tried to do when opposing the folly of men who have lost their perspective of reality."
The proposed sanctions would hurt the team's playing members financially. "I earn my living from bridge, and a substantial part of that from being hired to compete in high-level competitions," Debbie Rosenberg, a team member, said. "So being barred would directly affect much of my ability to earn a living."
A hearing is scheduled this month in San Francisco, where thousands of players will be gathered for the Fall North American Bridge Championships. It will determine whether displaying the sign constitutes conduct unbecoming a federation member.
Three players- Hansa Narasimhan, JoAnna Stansby and Jill Meyers - have expressed regret that the action offended some people. The federation has proposed a settlement to Ms. Greenberg and the three other players, Jill Levin, Irina Levitina and Ms. Rosenberg, who have not made any mollifying statements.
It calls for a one-year suspension from federation events, including the World Bridge Olympiad next year in Beijing; a one-year probation after that suspension; 200 hours of community service "that furthers the interests of organized bridge"; and an apology drafted by the federation's lawyer.
It would also require them to write a statement telling "who broached the idea of displaying the sign, when the idea was adopted, etc."
Alan Falk, a lawyer for the federation, wrote the four team members on Nov. 6, "I am instructed to press for greater sanction against anyone who rejects this compromise offer."
Ms. Greenberg said she decided to put up the sign in response to questions from players from other countries about American interrogation techniques, the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues.
"There was a lot of anti-Bush feeling, questioning of our Iraq policy and about torture," Ms. Greenberg said. "I can't tell you it was an overwhelming amount, but there were several specific comments, and there wasn't the same warmth you usually feel at these events."
Ms. Rosenberg said the team members intended the sign as a personal statement that demonstrated American values and noted that it was held up at the same time some team members were singing along to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and waving small American flags.
"Freedom to express dissent against our leaders has traditionally been a core American value," she wrote by e-mail. "Unfortunately, the Bush brand of patriotism, where criticizing Bush means you are a traitor, seems to have penetrated a significant minority of U.S. bridge players."
Through a spokesman, the other team members declined to discuss the matter. Ms. Narasimhan, Ms. Stansby and Ms. Meyers have been offered a different settlement agreement, but Ms. Martel declined to discuss it in detail.
Many of those offended by the sign do not consider the expressions of regret sufficient. "I think an apology is kind of specious," said Jim Kirkham, who has played in several bridge championships. "It's not that I don't forgive them, but I still think they should be punished."
Mr. Kirkham sits on the board of the American Contract Bridge League, which accounts for a substantial portion of the federation's financing, Ms. Martel said, and has submitted a proposal that would cut the league's support for the federation, one of two such proposals pending.
Robert S. Wolff, one of the country's pre-eminent bridge players, who has served as an executive and board member of several bridge organizations, said that he understood that the women might have had a legal right to do what they did but that they had offended many people.
"While I believe in the right to free speech, to me that doesn't give anyone the right to criticize one's leader at a foreign venue in a totally nonpolitical event," he wrote by e-mail.
David L. Anderson, a bridge player who supports the team, said it was common to see players at international tournaments sporting buttons bearing the date "1-20-09," when George W. Bush will hand off to a new president, as well as buttons reading "Support Our Troops."
"They don't go after those people," Mr. Anderson said.
© 2007 The New York Times