Say what you will about the PGA Tour’s partnership with LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league. Or debate Congress’s authority to question the arrangement that is upending the golf world.
Regardless, Congress’s deliberations about the matter on Tuesday were a resounding affirmation of the effectiveness of sportswashing.
Faced with tough questions from both sides of the aisle at a Senate hearing that frequently invoked Saudi Arabia’s ties to 9/11 and its government’s assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the PGA’s defense effectively amounted to the idea that it had no choice. LIV was too powerful thanks to its Saudi money. The best of two bad options was cutting a deal.
Both the PGA’s representatives and Republican senators espoused some version of this argument.
“Senator, we faced a choice,” PGA Chief Operating Officer Ron Price said. “One was to allow professional golf to be taken over and operated by the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The second was to allow the PGA Tour to continue to lead it in accordance with our mission and our values for the benefit of our players and charity.”
At another point he said that one choice was facing “the threat of professional golf being taken over by LIV Golf, which was 100 percent funded by the Public Investment Fund.”
PGA Tour policy board member Jimmy Dunne said: “They own 100 percent of LIV. They have billions of dollars in LIV. They have no economic constraint.”
“While we had significant wins in the litigation,” Price noted, “our players, fans, partners, employees, charities and communities would lose in the long run.”
These explanations have proved compelling to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who both on TV and during the hearing echoed the idea that the PGA faced an “existential” threat that left it little choice. He said that if the PGA had continued to lose stars to LIV, the current state of affairs would have been even worse.
“That hurts everybody in the games of golf except for the Saudis, who have an unlimited bank account, that want to buy their way into the game of golf,” Johnson said. “And that’s the reality you faced.”
Johnson also said he objected to those who labeled the PGA as “sellouts.”
“The Saudis have $700 billion,” he said. “If they want to be involved in golf, they will be involved in golf. And if this thing fails, they can spend the money to take over golf.”
All of which might indeed just be acknowledging reality. But it casts a harsh spotlight on another reality, one that has long led Americans to compromise on their principles while offering remarkably similar justifications for throwing up their hands.
Presidents up to and including Joe Biden repeatedly, as candidates, talked about getting tough on the Saudis, only to back down in the face of the Saudis’ importance to both the economy and our national security. Biden said in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s gruesome 2018 assassination, which U.S. intelligence says was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that he would treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” But there he was last year, forging a relationship and apparently seeking help from the oil-rich nation amid rising American gas prices.
Donald Trump, before becoming president, had long derided U.S. foreign policy for caving to Saudi power. But once in office he effectively disowned all that, while bluntly acknowledging the transactional nature of the relationship. He even took care to suggest that maybe the crown prince wasn’t responsible for Khashoggi’s death, contradicting his own intelligence agencies. (After Trump left office, his son-in-law Jared Kushner secured a $2 billion investment from the Saudis. And Trump is now hosting LIV tournaments at his golf courses.)
As much as anything, the defenses of the PGA are a testament to the power of sportswashing. Sportswashing is the practice of using sports to legitimize someone with reputational problems. It is enabled by vast wealth, which allows its practitioners to overwhelm the competition and draw those who might have moral and ethical qualms to overlook them in the name of winning and money.
Sportswashing has especially taken hold in professional soccer, where many of the top teams in Europe now are backed by Middle Eastern money. One team in the English Premier League, Newcastle United, was taken over by a consortium led by the Saudi Public Investment Fund in late 2021. At the time, the team was at risk of finishing near the bottom of the league and being relegated to a lower division; after significant new investment, this past season it finished fourth and earned a berth into the Champions League, a lucrative tournament featuring the best teams in Europe.
That showed what Saudi money can do for you; the PGA’s defense focuses more on what Saudi money can do to you. But the takeaway is the same; it’s people bowing to a foreign power because that foreign power has so much of it — power continually enabled by people in positions of authority previously making similarly pragmatic arguments.
And on Tuesday the government of the most powerful country in the world chewed over America’s continued supposed helplessness — or rather unwillingness — to do much of anything about it.