(Rick Rubin couldn’t help these women sound any better, either)

Who amongst us hasn’t laid awake at night, wishing and hoping that someday a spokesperson to rival Etan Thomas would emerge from the world of competitive bridge? OK, not very many of us. But the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom can’t let that get in the way of the story.

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, œWe did not vote for Bush.

By e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of œtreason and œsedition.

œThis 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. œThere 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. œIf 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, œa moment of levity, said Gail Greenberg, the team™s nonplaying captain and winner of 11 world championships.

œWhat 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.

œBy 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, œyou 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.