LIV Golf-PGA Tour merger reignites not-so-clean debate over sportswashing

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Christian Pulisic of the United States is helped by team doctors after he scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

There have been other recent headlines out of Saudi Arabia that had nothing to do with golf. That they caused little uproar is a sign of how intertwined and unremarkable Saudi business interests in sports, and in America, have become over the decades.

The announcement Tuesday that LIV Golf, a Saudi-backed organization implicated by its critics for the sin of sportswashing, had made a deal with the PGA Tour certainly outstripped news that the same backers are trying to lure top soccer players to Saudi Arabia’s domestic league.

And it definitely got more clicks than word of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the kingdom to discuss “strategic cooperation on regional and global issues”

The announcement also reignited debate over LIV’s role as the world’s top purveyor of sportswashing — an effort to rebrand a nation’s troubling public image that has been going on for decades in the Olympics and other sports across the globe but one that isn’t the clear-cut choice between good and evil that some make it out to be.

“The word ‘sportswashing’ gives this very simple impression that there’s one reason for everything they’re doing, and that’s not the case,” said Danyel Reiche, a professor at Georgetown University-Qatar who studies the intersection of sports and politics in the Middle East.

The sportswashing angle with LIV Golf gained steam last year when its first big-name signing, Phil Mickelson, was quoted as calling the Saudis “scary (expletives)” as he discussed what the CIA concluded was the Saudi-backed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Family members of Sept. 11 victims who blame Saudi Arabia for the 2001 terror attacks have also been vocal critics of Mickelson and others who have accepted multiple millions from LIV Golf.

“The PGA and (commissioner Jay) Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills,” 9/11 Families United Chair Terry Strada said in a statement Tuesday.

Monahan was among the critics who denounced LIV’s weaponization of virtually unlimited cash provided by the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund bankrolled by the Saudi government. His decision to go into business with that group angered some of the players who had forcefully defended the tour.

“Tell me why Jay Monahan basically got a promotion to CEO of all golf in the world by going back on everything he said the past 2 years. The hypocrisy,” PGA Tour player Dylan Wu tweeted.

Still, Monahan’s decision fits into a rich history of sports doing business in countries with bad records on human rights, the environment and worse.

The Olympics, for instance, were held in Nazi Germany in 1936 and in China twice in the past 15 years. Currently, the Olympic world is struggling with what role Russia should play in next year’s Olympics as its war in Ukraine rages on.

Just last year, Qatar was on the front line of the sportswashing debate. A country with no soccer pedigree spent an estimated $220 billion to host the World Cup. Some viewed it as a simple way to scrub a history of human-rights abuses. Others wonder if the effort, and others like it, are effective at all.

“I would respectfully suggest that for every American who thinks more positively of Qatar because they view the World Cup as a success, there are probably three to four Americans who had never heard of Qatar, who couldn’t pick Qatar’s continent, who now know about Qatar and their human rights violations,” said Stephen Ross, the executive director of the Penn State Center for the Study of Sports in Society.

The deal between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour certainly stands to give the Saudis a toehold on a legitimate and popular sporting enterprise in the United States. The deal also terminated litigation between the parties, thus sparing the Saudis from having to publicly disclose details of business dealings in the U.S.

Former President Donald Trump went to social media to declare the deal “a big, beautiful and glamorous deal for the wonderful world of golf.”

While Trump has a financial stake in LIV — his golf courses host three of that tour’s events — he is hardly the only American leader who has promoted business with the Saudis.

Blinken, the current secretary of state, was, coincidentally, in Saudi Arabia on the day the deal was announced. The U.S. signed a $3 billion arms deal with the Saudis last year, and America imports 12% of its petroleum from Persian Gulf states.

“How Saudi Arabia is trying to spin it is one thing, but also how the U.S. government is going about it is something else that needs to be presented and counterbalanced as well,” NBC golf analyst Mike Tirico pointed out on The Golf Channel.

Back in the world of sports, Middle East countries are taking a greater stake globally, especially in soccer.

Last year, Cristiano Ronaldo joined a Saudi team backed by the same investment fund that supports LIV in a deal worth a reported $200 million a year. There have been reports of offers from the league to two of the sport’s biggest names, Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema.

The same Saudi wealth fund owns the Premier League’s Newcastle club, while defending English champion Manchester City was bought by the Abu Dhabi royal family in 2008. Paris-Saint Germain (PSG) of Ligue 1 is owned by the emir of Qatar.

Ross, the Penn State professor, says it’s certainly fair for critics to point out objections about all the major players in sports. But he used some recently signed laws in Florida — six-week abortion ban, ban on transgender-affirming care — as an example of where some of those sportswashing debates can lead.

“Why do you not like it when the PGA deals with the Saudis but you don’t even think about it when the PGA holds three of its biggest events in Florida?’” Ross said. “So, the question is, ‘Where do you draw the line?’ And the other question is ‘What’s the difference?’ And I’m not saying you can’t draw a difference. But nobody is articulating that difference.”

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