‘Sportswashing’ Abounds

Golf’s civil war continues. On one side is the venerable Professional Golfers Association Tour—the PGA—and on the other, the upstart LIV Golf Tour.

The LIV is a brainchild of Australian golf legend Greg Norman, who first tried unsuccessfully to secede from the PGA in 1994. Back then, Norman had his billionaire media-mogul friend and fellow Australian Rupert Murdoch prepared to bankroll his project. Now he has financing from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. The Saudi connection has prompted the sports commentariat to refer to the LIV Tour as the “Saudi-backed LIV Tour” and to deride the whole project as a Saudi effort to cover up its atrocious human rights record. They even coined a new word, “sportswashing,” to describe the act of covering up a tarnished image by sponsoring professional sports.

Phil Mickelson, one of the LIV defectors and a golf legend in his own right, added fuel to the media fire when he admitted to knowing full well about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record but still felt it necessary to do business with them “because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” According to Mickelson, without leverage, the players cannot get concessions from the PGA Tour concerning media rights, pay, scheduling, and tournament format. “And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage,” he added. 

After Mickelson said the quiet part out loud, a great hue and cry ensued. Sports commentators such as Brandel Chamblee, of the Golf Channel, and Rick Riley, of ESPN, attacked Mickelson and his colleagues for valuing Saudi “blood money” over human rights. 

Never mind that the Saudis have also invested in Facebook, Boeing, Uber, Disney, Bank of America, Citigroup, British Petroleum, Electronic Arts, and Nintendo. There’s plenty of “blood money” to go around, evidently.

When will someone ask Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the Saudi-backed Facebook, about “blood money”? Disney could say something about their Saudi investors’ fondness for executing homosexuals, if only they weren’t so busy attacking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for restricting groomers. Someone should remind the brain trust at the Magic Kingdom that while a sexual predator caught grooming a child in Florida may now lose his teaching gig, in Saudi Arabia, he would lose his head.

Speaking of blood money, sports fans hear much of the “Saudi-backed LIV Tour” but almost nothing of the “China-backed NBA.” The NBA’s revenue stream is now reliant on Chinese government censors who decide whether their 1.4 billion citizens will be allowed to stream games and buy LeBron merchandise. No word on whether American basketball is popular among the Uyghurs and Falun Gong members detained in Chinese labor reeducation camps.

The LIV Tour doesn’t seem to be as savvy as the NBA about the potential of the Chinese marketplace. Anybody who watches a LIV event will quickly notice the difference between it and the NBA. LIV participants and spectators are patriotic, working-class men with dad bods, who love beer, golf, and Donald Trump. It’s more Middle America than Middle Kingdom.

—John Howting

Image: Phil Mickelson, LIV Golf member (from: Corn Farmer via flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

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