“If you get jammed up, don’t mention my name.”
Words of wisdom from the great philosopher Young Jeezy on his hit record “Soul Survivor.” Words his fellow golfers and organizers of the LIV Golf Invitational series wish Phil Mickelson would have taken to heart when speaking to an unauthorized biographer earlier this year, setting off a firestorm and debate on whether playing on a rebel golf tour meant to disrupt the PGA Tour is akin to selling your soul.
Fast forward several months and the LIV Golf series has officially arrived. The controversial rival to the PGA has already lured away noteworthy players like Mickelson and Dustin Johnson with financing from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The series, which kicked off this week with its first event in London, has been mired in controversy ever since Mickelson first confirmed his interest.
Meanwhile, the RBC Canadian Open has returned this weekend for its 111th edition after two years of COVID-related cancellations. Yet, RBC’s main spokesperson at the tournament in years past, Johnson, isn’t present. Neither is Mickelson, though he hasn’t been a regular at Canada’s lone PGA Tour stop.
When speaking about the opportunity to play in the Saudi Arabia-backed series earlier this year, Mickelson said: “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”
The fact that the series may come to rival the PGA or give the golfers leverage isn’t the issue; it’s that this is the latest example of sportswashing. Translation: a country or political regime using the lure of sport to attract attention and goodwill to cover up and distract from the human rights violations they have engaged in.
This much we know: sportswashing is not new. It’s been around a long time but is becoming more obvious and is apparently here to stay.
In this case, Saudi Arabia is a nation run by an authoritarian regime where women are treated as second-class citizens. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he wants to make it “a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” However, he’s been linked to various abuses, including the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who had been critical of him.
Despite knowing about these well-documented offences, Phil said the quiet part out loud. It’s no secret to the other golfers in the LIV Golf series either.
At LIV Golf’s media availability ahead of its first event this week, Graeme McDowell was asked about the sportswashing nature of this endeavour, and he hit every spot on the BS Bingo card. He talked about not being a politician and about growing the game of golf and about being a role model for kids — all in the same answer where he admits to helping Saudi Arabia on their “journey.” Which opened him up to be pushed on the extent this “journey” of sportswashing covers up extremely cruel crimes and human rights offences.
As he stumbled through an unconvincing response, he did land on some truth.
“As golfers, if we tried to cure geopolitical situations in every country in the world that we play golf in, we wouldn’t play a lot of golf,” McDowell admitted. So, in a sense, these golfers are making the same calculus that many other leagues, teams and sport governing bodies have made: take the money until the backlash causes you to lose money.
The players are thinking about their bottom-line, first and foremost. The truth is every person and every league has a magic number where the moral complexities become far less complex — that much is obvious across golf and the rest of the sports world.
Augusta National has a history that is problematic, not admitting Black members or women members for long stretches, and yet there was no yearning for golfers to turn down prize money for winning the Masters. So, it is a bit hypocritical when there are no clear rules on where to draw the line on what is and isn’t acceptable.
Newcastle United is controlled by the same group that is behind LIV Golf. Immediately after they were purchased, the English soccer club won 10 of their next 15 matches and finished in the top off half of the Premier League table. When that deal was announced last October, the supporters’ reaction was not shame, but joy as they saw their club become one of the richest in the world overnight. So can fans criticize these golfers for accepting big cheques on the Saudi-funded series, but then still cheer for a club backed by the same money?
Similarly, Paris Saint-Germain, is owned by Qatar’s big sovereign wealth fund.
Qatar is also the host of the upcoming FIFA World Cup. In order to prepare to host the biggest soccer tournament on the planet, Qatar has imported migrant workers who have been forced into terrible working conditions and had their passports confiscated so that they could not leave the country. Thousands of migrant workers have died under these conditions since Qatar was awarded the World Cup back in 2010. And we haven’t even mentioned the inability of women to have full participation in society, and the treatment of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
The Ladies European Tour has five Saudi-sponsored events but because it is a struggling tour and female sports investment is badly needed, the link to Saudi Arabia in this case hasn’t caused a visceral reaction.
On the men’s side, this isn’t even new to the sport or the region. The Saudi Golf Federation partnered with the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour)and created the Saudi International four years ago. In Europe, appearance fees are allowed so eventual LIV defectors — Mickelson, Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau — have been getting paid seven-figure appearance fees to play in Saudi Arabia for years without anyone taking issue.
But that was just one tournament per year in Saudi Arabia. LIV Golf already has eight tournaments scheduled, including two at Donald Trump courses with the finale at Trump National Doral Miami. The association with Trump in itself is controversial.
The truth is it’s not about being a role model or growing the game for these players. If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense.
The PGA Tour itself offers no salaries and no guaranteed payouts and does not allow tournaments to pay appearance fees to golfers (though some sponsors do pay golfers to appear at certain events and tournaments). The top three career earners in PGA Tour history are Tiger Woods ($121 million), Mickelson ($95 million) and Johnson ($74 million).
Greg Norman, the CEO of LIV Golf who also tried to form a world tour that would rival the PGA in the 1990s, said they’re offering Tiger Woods almost $1 billion. Johnson was reportedly offered $150 million. Mickelson was offered a $200-million guaranteed deal by LIV. With Lefty recently opening up about his gambling debts, the math tells the story there.
And that’s true for everyone involved.
The PGA wants to keep its monopoly, so it has taken a hard stance. It has suspended all players who choose to play on the LIV Golf series, but the USGA is going to allow players to play next week in their open invitational. Why? Because big-name players draw revenue. Now, we wait to see what the other majors decide to do. And that will be determined by how angry the public decides it wants to be.
The sponsors are also dropping golfers who leave because they don’t want their logos tied to the negative public sentiment that currently exists with LIV Golf. But do the players need as many corporate partners if LIV Golf is going to guarantee they’ll make more than they’ve ever made previously?
Everyone has their angle.
It seems the only ones not motivated solely by money are the Saudis. Their path to revenue and recouping costs for LIV Golf as a sustainable business model seems less clear. More people will likely watch the LIV press conference clips than will see actual LIV Golf this weekend. They don’t have a broadcast deal in the USA and are streaming their first event on YouTube. None of the PGA Tour’s major U.S. media partners like NBC or CBS or the Golf Channel will risk their relationship by broadcasting the LIV tournaments.
In a very golf way, everyone is trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing on this to determine if the initial intensity of outrage will only be short-lived.
And if we are going to scrutinize these dealings in sports, do we need to keep that same energy in other walks of life? Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund also invested billions of dollars in Uber before it went public and bought stock in Boeing, Facebook, Disney and Starbucks just to name a few. Are you complicit if you work for those companies? Or, if you have stock in those companies or use those products? How far removed do individuals or corporation need to be to plead plausible deniability?
We all have a bias to our own bottom-line. Being honest about the intended and unintended consequences of engaging with the sports associations we love has become part of the sports experience in 2022. LIV Golf is the latest example but there will be more.
The power of sport is so transformational, and the wealth is so generational, so it guarantees that sportswashing is here to stay. That’s no longer in question.
The questions now are: do we care as much about these issues as we demand the athletes should? And if so, what are we willing to do about it?