Golfers Gonna Golf | The Nation

The word “sportswashing” has been used so often by critics of the international business of athletics that it’s almost become a cliché. For the uninitiated, this is when a PR-friendly sporting event is used by a nation—usually one led by a murderous, authoritarian leadership—as a propaganda tool to provoke good feelings and associations with its regime. Famous examples of this include the 1936 Olympics held in Hitler’s Germany or Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s hosting arguably boxing’s most famous fight, the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Yet users of this phrase seem to reserve it for mostly non-Western dictatorships (particularly China).

But sportswashing needs to be understood as something that is indulged in by all governments—especially Western governments—when sports are used as a tool to achieve anti-poor, pro-development policy goals that people would otherwise oppose. Los Angeles, for instance, is hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics, and now as part of preparations, the city is attacking the unhoused population. LA would probably be persecuting the unhoused whether the Olympics were coming or not, but the shine of the games provides both reason and cover. When athletes refuse to compete in Israel, it is a protest against sportswashing, against lending legitimacy to their occupation of Palestine.

Sportswashing is very much in the news, because of the new LIV golf tour underwritten by Saudi Arabia. Some of the biggest names in the sport, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, have taken as many as nine figures of Saudi money for the mighty purpose of getting paid, no matter the moral implications. Mickelson now infamously spoke to this several weeks ago, when he said the Saudis “are scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics, because we, the players, had no recourse.”

In other words, Mickelson, somewhere in his own mind, might be consorting with some dangerous characters but he is nobly breaking the PGA’s cartel-like control of the game. He looks in the mirror and sees Curt Flood with a putter, with that fortune he’s receiving in payment just the spoils of war. This is, of course, nonsense. People like Flood, the baseball player who fought for free agency, risked everything to win freedom of labor—and did not secure a bag of cash for their troubles.

This is typical for the politics of golf: very conservative, allergic to social responsibility, resentful of progress, and always out for the buck.

In addition to Saudi Arabia’s horrific human rights record, it is now understood that prominent Saudis had significant involvement in the planning of the attacks of 9/11, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were in fact Saudi. This reality has pushed an injection of anger and nationalism into the backlash against Mickelson and his countrymen. The group 9/11 Families United sent an open letter to the golfers blasting them and, as Sports Illustrated reported, “expressing outrage that the group would become business partners with the new league and participate in sportswashing.”

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