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Sportswashing comes to America

Yahoo Sports US logo Yahoo Sports US 7/5/2022 Jay Busbee

Bryson DeChambeau possesses a formidable curiosity. Questioning everything about the golf game led him to transform himself during 2020’s quarantine from a promising young go-getter to a swollen-muscled hulk, winning himself a U.S. Open in the process.

Now, he’s turning his intellect to an even more daunting challenge: figuring out how to justify taking millions from the Saudi government to play on the controversial LIV Golf tour.

“Golf is a force for good,” DeChambeau said, “and I think as time goes on, hopefully, people will see the good that [the Saudis] are doing and what they are trying to accomplish rather than looking at the bad that’s happened before.I think moving on from that is important.”

DeChambeau meant to try to draw a line in the sand between the past and the present. He ended up unintentionally becoming the best possible example of how sportswashing works to scrub the sins of guilty nations.

Charl Schwartzel poses for a photo with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Saudi PIF governor, and Greg Norman, LIV Golf CEO, after winning the first LIV Golf event at The Centurion Club on June 11 in St. Albans, England. (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo Sports US Charl Schwartzel poses for a photo with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Saudi PIF governor, and Greg Norman, LIV Golf CEO, after winning the first LIV Golf event at The Centurion Club on June 11 in St. Albans, England. (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Sportswashing from the Olympics to LIV

“I define sportswashing as when political leaders use sports to appear important or legitimate on the world stage,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics and government at Pacific University, “while stoking nationalism and deflecting attention from chronic social problems back home.”

“Sportswashing” as a term is a relatively recent invention, but as a concept — the use of sports or other gaudy extravaganzas as a way to obscure a nation’s legal, moral, ethical or humanitarian flaws — sportswashing dates back nearly a century. Adolf Hitler staged the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the resulting goodwill and national pride helped Hitler consolidate power and aim higher in the years leading up to World War II afterward.

More recently, Russia spent the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup. China staged the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year at a phenomenal human and financial cost, despite worldwide condemnation of China’s treatment of minority ethnic groups. Qatar will host the World Cup later this fall even though reported inhumane conditions have reportedly led to the deaths of thousands of workers constructing soccer stadiums.

Saudi Arabia has been more globally active, hosting a Formula 1 race in Jeddah. Saudi money now reaches the Kentucky Derby (Medina Spirit, the 2021 winner before being stripped of the title, was owned by a Saudi sheikh) and the English Premier League (Newcastle United is now owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the same fund that bankrolls LIV).

“What’s different with LIV Golf and Newcastle United is that it’s happening outside of their sovereign territory,” Boykoff said. “It’s tapping into already-established fandom. Something different is happening there.”

Thanks to LIV Golf, Saudi money has reached American shores. LIV will play a scheduled five tournaments in the United States this year, starting last week in Portland, Ore. Players who compete in LIV tournaments are guaranteed a paycheck — unlike PGA Tour events, in which players must make the cut each week in order to get paid — and that paycheck can be significant. Notable players such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson will reportedly be paid $100 million or more to participate in LIV events.

Saudi Arabia’s litany of documented and alleged human rights violations ranges from the bombing of nearby Yemen to mass executions of prisoners, from the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi to a brutally repressive and punitive societal structure. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

“Sportswashing isn’t just a mere exorbitant branding exercise,” Boykoff said. “It’s a conveyor belt of life and death, and that’s not an overstatement. Khashoggi, the Uyghurs (in China) — sportswashing can grease the path for horrible things to happen in its wake. History is very clear on that.”

“Sportswashing is a major tool of international image management — not least in the hands of the Saudi authorities who have considerable funds at their disposal and an atrocious human rights record to distract from,” Amnesty International said in a recent statement. “Riyadh’s new-found love of sports promotion has come at a time when the Saudi authorities have carried out mass executions, when numerous human rights defenders have been jailed in the Kingdom and when Saudi missiles are still raining down on civilians in Yemen.”

Saudi Arabia’s history means that anyone accepting a check from the sovereign wealth fund — known as the Public Investment Fund, or PIF — faces questions about the morality of taking that money. So far, the players have answered by not answering, redirecting the conversation to golf and golf alone.

“I respect everyone's opinion and decisions, just like I hope they would on our side as well,” DeChambeau said prior to the event in Portland. “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, and from my perspective, we're golfers. We're providing entertainment globally, and we'll continue to do so as time goes on.”

Amr Zedan, Saudi Arabian businessman and owner of Medina Spirit, raises the trophy after winning the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo Sports US Amr Zedan, Saudi Arabian businessman and owner of Medina Spirit, raises the trophy after winning the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

External vs. internal sportswashing

Against profitability, morality is overmatched. Sportswashing, in part, depends on finding international partners who focus more on revenue than humanitarian concerns.

Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” is a national initiative aimed at reframing the popular perception of the nation. Emphasis is on youth and investment, environmental responsibility, and economic opportunity. In the same way that tickets to the Super Bowl or badges to The Masters help grease the wheels of American business, a pro-am round with a notable LIV golfer or a pre-match walk around the pitch at Newcastle’s St. James’ Park will attract outside interests whose investment will burnish the reputation of Saudi Arabia.

The other half of the sportswashing equation is the way that an authoritarian government frames the story within its own borders. Sports fans in Russia, China or Saudi Arabia often don’t have the unfettered internet access of their Western counterparts, and must rely on official government narratives that can shape their perceptions of reality in a specific, targeted way. State news agencies can frame a major world event like the Olympics or the World Cup as a triumph for the host government — and, by implication, a validation of the existing power structure.

“We often tend to think of the global audience being western democracies,” Boykoff said. “That’s not always the case. We need to understand the complexities of what effect [sportswashing] is having at home. Look no further than Russia. Who did it fool in the West? But what we saw in Russia was that Putin’s [popularity] numbers went through the roof because of the Sochi Olympics.”

Authoritarian governments achieve this by restricting the flow of potentially disruptive information to their citizens. At the Beijing Olympics, for instance, while foreign journalists pressed Olympic officials for answers about the host nation’s human rights violations and the whereabouts of a missing tennis star, state media asked gentle, inoffensive questions about topics such as the scarcity of mascot dolls.

Sportswashing thus serves to quell dissent at home before it can reach critical mass. Look at how successful we are, the message goes. Even the world’s greatest want to join forces with us. It all serves to reinforce the authoritarian power base at its most important location: home.

Newcastle United chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan (center with flag) is also the governor of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. (Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images) © Provided by Yahoo Sports US Newcastle United chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan (center with flag) is also the governor of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. (Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images)

If everyone’s corrupt, what’s the problem?

The fact that so much of sportswashing focuses on domestic, not international, concerns leads many sports fans to wonder whether it’s a problem at all. One element of the sportswashing backlash is purely financial: Wouldn’t you take $200 million to do what you’re already doing right now? It’s a question with no right answer; some would jump for $200, others wouldn’t budge even for $2 billion.

Beyond the financial incentive, though, there’s the question of relative guilt. The NBA does business with China, and will be playing preseason games in the United Arab Emirates this fall. Nike and Apple have faced scrutiny over their manufacturing practices. The United States’ own human rights record has some deep scars, and President Biden is headed to Saudi Arabia in mid-July to discuss energy policy in the midst of soaring fuel costs. So what’s so wrong with a few golfers taking some money from Saudi Arabia?

“If you’re not going to draw a [moral] line anywhere, then sure, sportswashing is a free-for-all,” Boykoff said. “For those who abide by ethical metrics, it’s too much and too obvious.”

Rory McIlroy has emerged as the PGA Tour’s strongest defender, but even he concedes that the complexity of the modern world prevents simple black-and-white answers. “I've spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and the vast majority of people that I've met there are very, very nice people, but there's bad people everywhere. The bad people that came from that part of the world did some absolutely horrendous things,” he said. “In this day and age everything is just so intertwined, and it's hard to separate sport from politics from dirty money from clean money. It's a very convoluted world right now.”

Others hone the complexity down to a single issue. 9/11 Families United, an advocacy group representing the interests of families who lost members in the September 11 attacks, has called on players to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia because of its deep connections to the terrorist attacks.

“We’ve been trying to educate [players interested in LIV],” 9/11 Families United chair Terry Strada said. “The entity partnering with them is not interested in the game of golf as a historic sport, not interested in growing the sport into something competitive. This is a shiny object with billions of dollars trying to poach players.”

Strada and others called on Mickelson in particular to understand what it means for them to take money from Saudi Arabia. At the U.S. Open in June, Mickelson tried to walk a line.

“I would say to the Strada family, I would say to everyone that has lost loved ones, lost friends on 9/11 that I have deep, deep empathy for them. I can't emphasize that enough,” he said during his strained press conference. “I have the deepest of sympathy and empathy for them.”

Mickelson did not, however, back away from LIV in any way or give any sort of justification for taking the Saudis’ money.

“I thought his offer of empathy was heartfelt,” Strada said. “But I was disappointed in his overall reaction and lack of interest in having anything to say to us. When you’re met with indifference, it’s tough to take.”

The truth: Sportswashing works

That moral calculus explains why sportswashing, on a broad level, works. With enough money, enough willpower and enough time, an authoritarian government can work its way into an existing sports structure and capitalize on its built-in loyalty.

There can be short-term consequences, as Mickelson discovered earlier this year when he attempted to downplay the severity of Saudi human rights violations. The backlash cost him sponsors and sent him into exile long enough to miss two majors. But he returned to the game, played the U.S. Open — briefly, at least — and is on track to compete at the Open Championship in July.

For fans of existing teams and sports, sportswashing can have a negligible effect. Most Newcastle supporters aren’t going to abandon their team because of its new ownership. Formula 1 fans will tune into the race in Jeddah just like races in Australia, Spain and the United States. No one’s boycotting the Kentucky Derby because a horse with Saudi financing is in the field.

Sportswashing “may well soften the views of everyday apolitical aficionados of sport,” Boykoff said. “It might turn off really politics-minded fans. But how many everyday Newcastle fans, golf fans, are just going to appreciate that this country ‘saved’ their team or their sport?”

Moreover, major international spectacles like the Olympics and the World Cup demand worldwide coverage. Purely by the nature of media and audience consumption, it’s impractical to remind viewers of the authoritarian tendencies of the host nation when reporting, say, the score of a Germany-Brazil match or the results of a bobsled heat. The sheer volume of information normalizes and validates the host nation.

All of which points to an inescapable conclusion: Sportswashing works, and it’s coming to American sports. Already, LIV is slated to play five of its eight events in its inaugural season at American courses. The NBA’s fraught interactions with China have been well-documented. And given the PGA Tour’s own arrangements with Saudi Arabia and China, it’s notable that the tour levels its criticism at the volume of money on the LIV tour, not the moral questions about the money’s origins.

How long will it be before a Saudi consortium makes a run at an NFL franchise? The Broncos just sold for $5 billion; the $600 billion PIF could double that price for, say, the Chargers or Commanders without a second thought. Any sale would require the approval of owners, but the entire history of sportswashing is a testament to the fact that money can paper over a whole raft of objections. And if the Saudi consortium decided to install a fan-friendly figure — a beloved former quarterback, for instance — as the public face of the franchise, objections would melt away to the margins.

For now, LIV stands as the most notable sportswashing effort of the moment, at least until the World Cup in Qatar begins later this year. LIV is a perfect example of sportswashing’s primary limitation: all the money in the PIF can’t create competition where none exists, and the Saudi government’s endless funds can’t buy legitimacy. The world’s top five players — Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, McIlroy, Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas — have expressed solidarity with the PGA Tour. LIV players’ ability to compete in future majors is very much in doubt. The no-cut, shotgun-start, guaranteed-paycheck format of the LIV tour will benefit players’ bank accounts, but little else.

“Shotgun three days to me is not a golf tournament, no cut. It's that simple,” Rahm said just prior to the U.S. Open. “I want to play against the best in the world in a format that's been going on for hundreds of years. … I've always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that. There's meaning when you win the Memorial Championship. There's meaning when you win Arnold Palmer's event at Bay Hill. There's a meaning when you win L.A., Torrey, some of the historic venues.”

Last week’s event was held at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Portland. At the end of July, the LIV tour will travel to New Jersey, where former President Donald Trump’s Bedminster National will host the series’ third event.

The LIV roster has already swelled to include several major winners, with others likely to join, particularly if they can still play in majors going forward. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when, many players will make the jump for the enormous paycheck — and, like DeChambeau, how much they’re willing to rationalize to accept it.

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.

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