As journalists, we are biased when it comes to LIV Golf, and make no apologies for it.
If you’re not familiar with LIV Golf, it’s a professional golf tour that’s being financed by the Saudi government. Professional golfers are being paid millions of dollars just to play on that tour — not for winning tournaments, but for the reputations they built as members of the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of America.
Why? Because the Saudis have a lot to cleanse.
“I define sportswashing as when political leaders use sports to appear important or legitimate on the world stage,” Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics and government at Pacific University, told Yahoo Sports in a story about the new golf league, “while stoking nationalism and deflecting attention from chronic social problems back home.”
The same article points out that while “sportswashing” is a new term, it has historic context. Notably, sportswashing was used by Adolph Hitler in staging the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to build goodwill and national pride that helped Hitler “consolidate power and aim higher in the years leading up to World War II afterward.”
So what do the Saudis have to wash? Let’s start with Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post reporter who was killed and dismembered in 2018 at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi had written opinion pieces for the Washington Post speaking out against “the public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to express opinions contrary to those of my country’s leadership.”
According to a 2021 report in the Post, a U.S. Intelligence report found that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “approved” of the murder of Khashoggi, whose columns had been critical of the Saudi regime. The report concluded that the operation would not have occurred without the authorization of the crown prince. “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Khashoggi,” the report said, according to the Post. “Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”
The U.S. has a complicated relationship with the Saudis. The Biden administration has been criticized for the president’s recent visit to the country, and his fist bump with bin Salman. Biden went to Saudi Arabia to convince the Saudis to increase oil production.
It’s disappointing, to say the least, that we’re in the position of having what U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders called a “warm relationship with a dictatorship” — particularly a country that’s been accused of human rights atrocities, and which treats women as second-class citizens.
As a country we may have to play nice, but the PGA is correct in putting sanctions on players who have abandoned their principles and are taking Saudi millions — Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson among them. There have been 17 PGA players suspended from playing in PGA tournaments as a result of their decision to play in LIV tournaments, including the one recently held in Bolton.
It is encouraging to see PGA legends Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, among others, strongly speak out against LIV Golf and what amounts to an easy and sleazy paycheck.
It was particularly distasteful that the LIV tournament came to the Boston area a week ahead of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While the 9/11 Commission found “no credible evidence” that Saudi Arabia played a role in the attacks, there are lingering questions about the association between Saudi national Omar al-Bayoumi and the hijackers responsible for the attacks that killed more than 3,000 Americans. In another distasteful act, former President Donald Trump hosted a tournament in July at his New Jersey country club in Bedminster. The tournament drew protests by the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks, who expressed outrage at a Saudi-sponsored tournament being held by a former president and so close to where the attacks occurred.
Typically, we wouldn’t pay much attention to a fledgling sports league, but LIV Golf is more than that. We need to continue to point out this attempt to “wash” the atrocities of Saudi Arabia through sports in the hopes that it will continue to backfire. LIV Golf is billed as “golf, only louder.” We hope people will continue to look past the noise.