Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
I should probably begin this column by acknowledging I know very little about golf. My frame of reference is basically that it is by and large an activity for the wealthy with a disproportionate and increasingly unsustainable impact on the environment.
What I have spent a lot of time thinking about (and writing about in this column), though, is the quandary of how to consume sports while acknowledging the often harmful sources that fund them — and where to draw the line when it comes to so-called sportswashing, the process of major organizations or countries attempting to improve their reputations and credibility by putting money into sports organizations and athletes.
The genesis of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund-backed LIV Golf series has prompted many to ask those questions, both of the high-profile golfers who have agreed to participate and the places and people hosting them. The debate is straightforward on the surface: Saudi Arabia has an abysmal human rights record, with violent, carceral retribution for almost any dissenters among its populace, on top of restrictive laws for women and a complete ban on any LGBTQ people and same-sex sexual activity. Families of 9/11 victims have been protesting LIV tournaments because of Saudi ties to the attacks; most recently, U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Saudi government killed and dismembered Washington Post journalist and vocal dissenter Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Taking their government’s abundant oil money, then, would seem to be a self-evidently poor decision.
Yet Phil Mickelson and top-50 golfers Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau (among quite a few others) have done just that, cashing enormous checks just to sign on and competing for the largest purses in golf history. Most of them have refused to admit that they jumped from the PGA Tour for the money, spouting blather about golf being “a force for change and good” as golfer Charles Howell III put it in a presser earlier this week — seeming to imply that by taking their money to golf and saying absolutely nothing he could… improve the circumstances of those oppressed by the Saudi government.
Nominally, the tournament purports to upend golf convention with a different, shorter format than the PGA and a “player-power-focused” approach — in part, a response to PGA Tour members who feel their compensation doesn’t match the profits they generate. The PGA Tour is almost helping their case by pursuing retribution against defectors to the extent that now the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the organization for “anticompetitive behavior” (although it’s also pretty easy to imagine why a U.S. government facing inflation and an angry, oil-hungry populace would want to humor the Saudi government). Of course, Donald Trump is heavily involved.
So what are golf fans supposed to do? For the moment, the tournament doesn’t even have a TV deal in the U.S. because of both the PGA Tour’s stranglehold on the market and LIV’s political baggage — delaying ethical quandaries for all but the most avid golf fans, who have the option to stream the contests on LIV’s site. The danger, though, is that those who follow sports will pick up the rhetoric that LIV participants are using to defend taking those giant checks — rhetoric that can basically be boiled down to the Matt Bors’ “Mister Gotcha” cartoon.
“You can’t pick and choose who you want to be mad at,” Charles Barkley told the New York Times earlier this week. “They should be mad at Berkshire Hathaway, Tesla, Bank of America, Disney. But they’re not. They are just mad at these golfers.” Whataboutism? Certainly. But it’s also just wrong: people are “mad at” all those companies, not to mention the governments clamoring to keep their place at the Saudis’ oil-filled teat. “[Saudi crown prince] Mohammed Bin Salman is betting that the West will look away because it would rather fund his blood-soaked petro-state than Putin’s war machine,” as Maya Foa, director of legal charity Reprieve, put it in an interview with ABC News. It is a gruesome, depressing reality that obviously expands far, far beyond the implications of some golf tournament. “It’s not like America has got a great civil rights record, OK?” he added to the NYT, again correctly stating that it is hard to give the U.S. any kind of moral high ground.
Why keep pestering the golfers about it, when — as Barkley correctly assesses — there are plenty of other U.S. companies and people making a mint off of the Saudis? Because it is considerably easier to pressure individual public figures than the largest corporations in the world. That’s it, and it’s an imperfect answer.
Yes, the whole LIV series is undoubtedly a fiasco with bad actors on both sides throwing around some self-righteous jargon to protect their financial interests. But Barkley’s (and most of the LIV golfers’) justification — the nihilistic assessment that everything is bad so none of it matters — only works if they’re ok with completely giving up. I know that’s not true: Barkley just went viral for saying that he loved gay and trans people last week, a statement that really shouldn’t be significant in 2022 but is.
Well, Charles, a good way to show how you love gay and trans people is to avoid taking the money of a government that denies they exist, and standing next to a person — Donald Trump — whose followers seek to legislate the LGBTQ community out of existence here in exactly the same way they are in Saudi Arabia.
Basically, these individual golfers and celebrities have a little power to try and speak up for the vast majority, who have far less. Tiger Woods not joining LIV Golf says a lot more than me not banking at Bank of America (which…I don’t! Use a credit union!), for example. It’s not a universal maxim, and it’s not a reflection of a coherent view of international politics; it’s just doing what you can, when you can — making some stopgap choices to help people instead of acting helpless. If everyone did that, we’d all be in a better place.